A straight shot west out of Boston on I-90 will carry you, in two hours or less, to Western Massachusetts, where the country still looks like it did twenty or even 40 years ago: college towns, I-91 tracing the same lazy ladder from Springfield up through Holyoke and Northampton, Amherst and Deerfield. Out there it's taken for granted that the houses will be drafty, the winters uniformly long, and that, on any given trip to the local supermarket, one might spot Thurston or Lou or Kim or J, on-and-off locals for more than twenty years.
This is the quiet corner of the American indie elite, alive and well, where the long sleep between 1983 and 2007 feels more like a light daydream, and where the gap between a record then and a record now is no bigger than the label change from Homestead and SST to Geffen or Fat Possum. Dinosaur Jr., Amherst's native sons, have no business releasing a record as eerily faithful to their own past as this one, but here it is, in all its low-key glory. The nostalgia this thing exudes is hard to pin down. Jess Harvell's generational invocation in 2005 at the reissue of the three records the original Dinosaur lineup made in 1985, 1987, and 1988 is as good as any representation of the utter and complete solidarity and identification a certain enormous group of fans of Alternative Rock (read: everybody of music-listening age in the nineties) had-- has-- with this band. Just throw on anything from Dinosaur to Without a Sound and watch your elders go slack-jawed. Imagine our surprise when we finally became old enough and realized that the battered weariness that was always there in their music and in J Mascis' ever-thinning voice was perfectly suited to actually being a little bit old.
Beyond, the band's first record as the selfsame trio since 1988's Bug, benefits enormously-- more so even than fellow MA-veterans Mission of Burma or latter-day Sonic Youth-- from the years, experiences, successes, and disappointments elapsed between then and now. It's been an eternity since the sludgy Jurassic ooze of their debut, Dinosaur, the light-bursting-through-trees melody of You're Living All Over Me, the clean lines of Bug and Mascis' subsequent solo expeditions, under his own name and that of his old band. But none of the three ever stopped making music, whether Lou (Sebadoh, Sentridoh, Folk Implosion, and solo), J (Witch, the Fog) or otherwise (Murph?). Their music aged naturally along with them.
Beneath Beyond's crystalline production is the sublime result: years and years of weariness and aging and conflict put back into the bottle (with the same label no less-- the cover is as precise a rendering of that late-eighties SST aesthetic as anything from the actual era). Less a theme park of the past and more of an actual trip there-- think Coney Island-- Beyond is nostalgic for everything but the band's own glory days. If anything, it's an exercise in making their entire twenty-year output sound contemporary again.
It's easy to spot parallels ("Crumble" smacks of "Repulsion" to me; the guitar-work in "Pick Me Up" cribs vaguely from "Feel the Pain") but what struck me about Beyond is how little time I've spent thinking about any of their old songs since I got a copy. And I can't be the only one whose blood-pressure went up a bit when the first single, "Almost Ready", dropped-- the obvious return of Murph, picking out on the snare all the melodic nuance of J's return-to-the-big-time riff, the sanded-down and low-pitched reverie of Mascis' voice, an almost platonic ideal of a Dinosaur Jr. song. Add the follow up, "Been There All The Time", the crusading guitar line and signature self-doubt-- "Can I be there all the time?"-- and the inevitable solo and the revelation dawns: they are the exact same band they were.
Lack of a certain kind of ambition has always been Dinosaur Jr.'s style, and songs like "Crumble"-- which is built like and plays like every other slacker mope couch-song these guys have written-- reconstruct their ancient, ever-present atmosphere of escapism. The two Lou Barlow songs, "Back to Your Heart" and "Lightning Bulb", are keystones here, as well as the latest ambiguous entries into a now-infinite history of hatred and reconciliation between the band's two songwriters-- ironically, both new songs are reminiscent of nothing so much as Mascis' solo work. Mascis returns the favor on "I Got Lost", which is not recommended listening for moments of extreme emotional vulnerability, and on "We're Not Alone". The false ending on that song halfway in, its tired collapse and tentative resurrection, is either a great metaphor or just a beautiful thing-- maybe both.
Invert everything I just said and you get the critique: same-old things, one song seeping into another, tired nostalgia, nostalgic tiredness, ear-bleeding country-for-old-men. But for all the ubiquity of Dinosaur then and now, I can't think of one band but Dinosaur Jr. able to do what they do. If it's nothing special, perennially under-dogged and wasted, who doesn't want more of it?