A look at Elastic Days, the winsome new album by Dinosaur Jr. chief J Mascis
When it first reared its rebellious head in full flourish of the mid-to-late ‘70s, punk positioned itself as the antithesis of pure pop.
Where once conventional hooks and mass appeal melodies seemed an obvious avenue when it came to conforming with a formula and winning universal acceptance, punk was a direct repudiation of all that notion entailed, given its obvious attempt to outrage, intimidate and defy anything and anyone that defined the norm.
How then to account for artists that start out with a rebellious streak and then concede to convention? While we can credit the Clash, the Sex Pistols and the Ramones for staying true to their original insurgent ideals, we’d also call into the question the intents of Green Day, the Lemonheads and Dinosaur Jr. once they cast aside their renegade ways only to opt instead for a sound and style that had commercial credence residing at its core. Is it simply a matter of maturing or possibly due to some sort of resignation that recognizes the reality that there’s no real future in nihilism and negativity? One has to wonder what causes a rebellious rocker to concede with conformity and them amp up their accessibility.
Of course, we can’t overlook the obvious rewards that come with abandoning alienation. Green Day proved the perfect case in point; with a hit Broadway musical American Idiot winning raves from critics and audiences alike, Billie Joe Armstrong in particular has been singled out as an artist of singular distinction, the Pete Townshend of his generation. (After all, didn’t the Who set the precedent when Tommy took to Broadway and their rabid revelry was suddenly elevated beyond adolescent acceptance?) Even John Lydon, the former Johnny Rotten, has become an elder icon of sorts.
J Mascis has been pursuing that tack ever since shifting gears with his pet project Dinsosaur Jr. Having begun their collective career as unapologetic punks, the band shifted course once they signed to Warner Bros. and, in turn, increased their accessibility factor. After breaking up the band at the end of the ‘90s, Mascis ventured out on his own, varying his stance with a series of solo albums that veered from a devotional effort dedicated to a Hindu spiritual icon to an all acoustic outing.
With Elastic Days, Mascis returns to his regular motif, plying assertive melodies with his Neil Young-like wail. Most of the melodies are exceedingly mellow, purveyed with an assertive strum and a clear penchant for pop that affects an instant embrace in the album overall. While those with immediate memories of Mascis and his earlier pursuits certainly won’t be surprised, anyone who followed Dinosaur Jr seminal signature style will likely find Elastic Days as pliable as its title suggests. While there’s a certain urgency in the delivery, the emphasis on acoustic guitars and a winsome lyrical read brings a sense of nuance to Mascis the singer-songwriter.
Indeed, those unfamiliar with Mascis’ solo outings outside his work with Dinosaur Jr. and the other occasional outfits he’s been involved with might be surprised at just how supple and subtle Elastic Days sometimes seems. It’s not morose, mind you, nor does it qualify as some sort of shoegazing setup. Still, there’s more than a hint of wistful emotion in songs such as “Web So Dense” and “Sky Is All We Had,” even though reflection and resolve are imbued in equal measure. Even the songs that seem most tender — “ Went Dust” and “Picking Out the Seeds” in particular — find a spark and shimmer that’s as affecting as they are embracing. Nothing is so intense as to leave the listener behind. The music is measured, but moving none the less.
At age 52, Mascis has mellowed. However it’s also worth remembering that there’s nothing wrong with an older insurgent, especially in today’s environment flush with division and discord. Rock on, you renegades!