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, yields a significant benchmark in their discography: It’s the closest recollection of their original, bombastic DIY sound in over 30 years.
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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. 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.
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.
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.