Sweep It Into Space is more self-aware tinkering than substantial reinvention, but it affirms that the rockers suitably understand their own strengths.
At this point, it’s hard to envision the version of Dinosaur Jr. that became so fractured by the end of the 1990s. Much of the band’s initial, storied run was marked by tumult and animosity — and it all sourced back to laconic mastermind J Mascis, whose auteurist obsessions would turn Dinosaur Jr. into a virtual one-man band by the time of 1997’s Hand It Over. That particular album also marked the last use of the Dinosaur Jr. name — at least, until Mascis reconciled with founding bandmates Lou Barlow and Murph, around 2005, and the trio quickly fell back into a fairly regular touring schedule, while also recording albums with some frequency. The first two of these post-hiatus records still probably stand as the high points of this iteration of the band: 2007’s Beyond and 2009’s Farm. But the records that have come after have had their own merit, one reflective of both the group’s next-level musicianship and of a newly harmonious dynamic. Sweep It Into Space (the twelfth Dinosaur Jr. album, eighth with this lineup) is another release in the latter mold, and finds the band at relative ease. But it’s also somewhat of a wistful record.
Produced by Mascis, in tandem with Kurt Vile — a sensical, though practically on-the-nose choice; the spacey folk-rocker an obvious descendant of this band, and not unsimilar in persona to his co-producer here — Sweep It Into Space may be Dinosaur Jr.’s least confrontational record, so almost entirely free is it of the distortion and aggressive feedback that has long characterized the band’s approach to composition. With this absence, Mascis’s pop songwriting expertise is laid bare (he wrote all of these songs, save for lead single “The Garden,” a sort of a standalone track at the album’s midway point that was penned and sung by Barlow). The slight reworking of the band’s aesthetic was presumably influenced by Vile: Each song here is not only stripped back to the point of becoming straightforward (though still jam-y) pop-rock, but Mascis’s vocals seem to favor a drawl and his guitar a heavy, dynamic southern rock, as if there was an attempt to bring the group closer to their outside producer, in terms of artistic alignment. It should be noted, of course, that Dinosaur Jr. have drawn on these elements in the past; they just seem particularly keen here to delve into classic rock and equip every song with pop hooks and nimble guitar solos.
Sweep It Into Space is also a surprisingly nostalgic album; it’s vulnerable without deflection, and celebrates both the longevity of this band and of their devoted audience. Mascis’s songwriting remains poignant and vague enough to project any and all interpretations onto it — as on album opener “I Ain’t,” which has him describing a need to be in conversation with others (“I ain’t good alone”), a sentiment that one could say is echoed across this whole album. A reciprocal statement arrives at the close, on “You Wonder,” as Barlow sings Mascis’s words (“My religion is a vision of you humming in my ear”). These snatches of lyrics, though, may make this album seem like more of an especially earnest work than it ultimately is: Mascis’s songwriting is still as sardonically edged as ever (the album’s second track, “I Met the Stones,” takes a droll, roundabout approach to addressing the band’s current day canonicity), just with an uncomplicated sense of graciousness from which he’s more often chosen to steer away. If not a substantial reinvention, Sweep It Into Space is at least an affirmation that Dinosaur Jr. understand their own strengths.
Published as part of Album Roundup — April 2021 | Part 2.