The music of rock’s most reliable guitar bands often ends up sounding dated and painfully generic, or worse, steeped in irony. This isn’t the case with Dinosaur Jr., who are well into the fourth decade of their career and whose output in the 21st century has remained incredibly consistent without feeling overly indebted to their classic albums in the late 80s and early 90s. The Massachusetts group’s latest LP, Sweep It Into Space – their 12th overall and first since 2016’s Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not – is another solid addition to their formidable catalog. Recorded at Amherst’s Bisquiteen in late 2019 with co-producer Kurt Vile, and completed by J Mascis during quarantine the following year, the album finds the trio – rounded out by bassist Lou Barlow and drummer Murph – doing what do they do best, and doing it in a way that feels refreshing and more enjoyable than it has in a long time.
If the band’s post-reunion material has generally been marked by a shift towards cleaner arrangements while retaining Mascis’ knack for chugging riffs and searing solos, Sweep It Into Space fully leans into that dynamic, and the result is noticeably more vibrant than some of their previous releases. Part of this newfound lightness comes down to Vile’s production, which cuts away some (but definitely not all) of the fuzz to inject new life into Dinosaur Jr.’s trademark sound, from the 12-string acoustic guitar on ‘I Ran Away’ to the use of Mellotron on the funky ‘Take It Back’. ‘I Ran Away’ is a striking highlight, its warm, driving acoustic guitar overlayed with shining twin leads and a pleasant chorus that’s among the most memorable on the album; the bouncy feel of ‘Take It Back’, by far the biggest outlier on the record, is more incongruous but no less endearing in its attempt to switch things up while keeping the band’s signature touch.
But even without the slight variations in sound, Sweep It Into Space would stand out thanks to its greater focus on melodic songcraft and inviting, pop-leaning arrangements. Opener ‘I Ain’t’ swings right into that mode with its major chord progression and sweeping solos, exuding an air of excitement that makes its despairing lyrics (“It’s too late to/ Truly make it alone”) and Mascis’ typically laconic delivery sound like a positive affirmation of unity. ‘And Me’ is another track that bursts with colour, marrying Mascis’ love of the Cure with crunchy guitars that are quintessentially Dinosaur Jr. ‘Garden’, the better of the two tracks written by Barlow, harkens back to a few different musical eras, while the lyrics offer a poignant survey of the past as a way of getting through the present: “It takes time living on a razor blade/ To know the way.”
Sweep It Into Space feels like an earnest reflection of that mantra, which has guided – and grounded – the band’s music for more than a decade since the reunion that once seemed like an impossibility. It’s a deceptively simple record that adds a bit more texture to the band’s monolithic sound, but whose biggest accomplishment is capturing that familiar spark through a more gracious lens. It’s these moments that animate the album: the boisterous energy of ‘Hide Another Round’ on one end, the patient melodies of ‘To Be Waiting’ on the other – both driven by the same invigorating force. One of Mascis’ piercing solos seems to be a response to the song’s title: ‘I Expect It Always’. Over and over again, Dinosaur Jr. deliver.