The legacy of Dinosaur Jr. is a dichotomy, a tale of two bands in one. The Amherst rock trio — including guitarist-vocalist J Mascis, bassist-vocalist Lou Barlow and drummer Murph — formed back in 1984 and released music with modified lineups through the global peak of alternative rock and grunge before sourly disbanding in the mid-1990s. But in 2005, the original trio reunited and released a critically-lauded string of albums leading up to 2016’s “Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not.” The group’s newest arrival, the lively and homespun “Sweep It Into Space” (out April 23), yields a significant benchmark in their discography: It’s the closest recollection of their original, bombastic DIY sound in over 30 years.
In Michael Azerrad’s alternative rock chronicles “Our Band Could Be Your Life,” Barlow declared speed metal and “wimpy-jangly stuff” as the group’s major influences. While they began straying away from such descriptors around 1991’s “Green Mind,” Barlow’s citations are bursting from the seams on “Sweep It Into Space;” never since 1988’s “Bug” has the band sounded this raw. And while the album is not the strongest release in their new millennium canon, it is the truest to the original triptych of Dinosaur Jr. albums, one that harkens back to the cannonade bliss of youthful rock ‘n’ roll in its most blithely unpolished form.
The ample, mangled riffage of album opener “I Ain’t” beckons the familiar identifiers of any tried and true Dinosaur record. From the shrill fuzz of Mascis’ guitar to Barlow’s slippery, crunching bass and the thundering cascade of Murph’s drumming, the cacophony greets you like the mouthwatering waft of a bag of McDonald’s fries: You’ve had it before, you know what it tastes like and you know, most importantly, that it’s good. When Mascis’ raspy mumble cuts through the mix, it’s like he’s testing a new idea in your ear. It’s foundational Dinosaur. Then four songs go by and you begin to wonder if this is a new Dinosaur Jr. record at all, or maybe it’s just a leaked bootleg from the tail end of the Reagan administration.
It’s easy to look at “Sweep It Into Space” as a shiftless effort. Containing 12 songs with the average dynamic range of a garage band at full volume, it’s not just a product of the Dinosaur Jr. rock album template — it is the template. But upon further review, the rawness and slapdashery of it all are exactly what made the band so great 30 years ago. The album isn’t meant to build on anything the band has already done, but instead revive the spontaneity and DIY of a tight rock band making a rock record. And for these guys to be exploring those familiar, rough and ready passages well into their 50s is something to marvel at.
Beyond the offerings of cryptically self-defeating, guitar hero punk rock (“I Ain’t,” “N Say,” “Hide Another Round”) and vintage, foot-stomping heavy metal (“I Met The Stones,” “Walking To You”), some welcome points of heterogeneity emerge in the couplet of Barlow songs featured on the tracklist, perhaps most notably on the melodic and anthemic “Garden.” Its sparse guitar parts and sprawling chorus almost feel like a different band entirely, but what it provides is a moment to breathe in a sequence that can feel a bit stifling under the cumbersome weight of a million fuzzed-out guitar riffs.
Whereas variety isn’t necessarily the group’s selling point, J Mascis and Co. make an honest-to-goodness attempt at playing with arrangements and stylistic nuance. The hurried, jilted piano groove of “Take It Back” is a bright spectrum of sound foreign to the Dinosaur Jr. catalogue. The swinging, melodramatic groove of Barlow’s “You Wonder” closes the album with a strange sense of nostalgia; it’s a sonic callback to bookish ‘90s pop rock à la Elliott Smith. Perhaps these divergences can be chalked up to the presence of Kurt Vile, Philadelphia’s ambling indie rock stalwart who co-produced the album, but his influence feels starker on songs like “And Me” and “I Ran Away.” The hearty jangling of acoustic guitars are the tipoff.
Somewhere in the late ‘80s, as Barlow departed the group on the cusp of their major label debut, Dinosaur Jr.’s temporal dimensions of sound shifted to higher fidelity. You could say the pristineness of this peaked around 1994’s “Without a Sound,” and began gradually devolving to a scrappier sound as the second wave of their career began in earnest. And so we arrive at “Sweep It Into Space,” whose auditory parameters make the band sound raw and slightly muffled, like they’re practicing in the room next door. Where the album’s music may signal to some light curiosity outside of the J Mascis songbook, the sonics behind it suggests a return to form from before Dinosaur Jr. was big enough to take Nirvana on tour.
The second era of this band we’ve come to know since 2005 built a solid core from the remnants of their strongest music made in the 1990s. Until their newest effort, it had seemed the Dinosaur of the 1980s had all been forgotten. But “Sweep It Into Space” sounds like something you’d throw into your tape deck in 1989. It’s noisy, equal parts metal and twangy, and thematically cryptic. Whether or not J Mascis, Lou Barlow and Murph intended to channel their 20-something selves isn’t totally clear, but we won’t hold it against them. Ultimately, Dinosaur Jr. has and always will rule and remain fearless as ever, even after almost 40 years of trailblazing.