Review Summary: It's not perfect, but for a band almost 40 years into their career, "Sweep It Into Space" is more than capable of standing on its own within the Dinosaur Jr. oeuvre.
There’s nothing quite like the realization that spring has sprung. Gloomy and overcast days slowly give way to later and later sunsets until that brilliant equinox arrives, and the first 60-degree day of the year unloads a mammoth amount of dopamine into my nervous system. For me, no other artist embodies this changing of the seasons quite like Dinosaur Jr.; their catalog resides in a realm of blooming flowers and endless sunshine, a place where even the most tender expressions of sorrow have a hopeful halo around them. It’s no secret that the band’s apex occurred in the late ‘80s with their two master strokes, “You’re Living All Over Me” and “Bug”, but it’s becoming clearer with the passage of time that Dino’s reunion lineup is a worthy successor to their original iteration. Records like “Beyond” and “I Bet on Sky” hearken back to the glory days of the group’s SST releases, while the brilliant “Farm” found the threesome simultaneously discovering new territory through sprawling song structures and progressive influences. Their newest effort “Sweep It Into Space” is similar to “Farm” not necessarily in sound but in spirit, remaining devoutly true to the Dinosaur Jr. ethos while exuding a newer and more vibrant energy than their more recent releases.
If 2016’s somewhat disappointing “Give A Glimpse of What Yer Not” has any listeners feeling wary about giving the band’s new effort the old college try, the first 45 seconds of rip-roaring opener “I Ain’t” should allay their fears pretty much immediately. This shimmering intro is the perfect way for Dinosaur Jr. to reintroduce themselves to us in their fifth (!!!) decade as a band, featuring soaring verse leads and angelic backing vocals, as well as showcasing the obvious improvement in production quality over “Give a Glimpse” and even “I Bet On Sky”, thanks to indie extraordinaire Kurt Vile. J. Mascis’s vocal style is as unmistakable as ever, and despite his pessimistic observation that “I ain’t gettin’ along”, there’s a renewed engagement in his voice here; it can’t be described as anything close to fervor (because it’s J Mascis), but “Sweep It” demonstrates a man who appears far more inspired than he did the last time we heard from him.
Elsewhere, Lou Barlow and Murph remain in top form, with the improved production shining a well-deserved spotlight on Murph in particular, who turns in some of the most pulse-pounding drum tracks of his career on tracks like “I Expect It Always” and “Hide Another Round”. Barlow’s rare vocal performances are always a treat on any Dino record, but his songwriting has taken a considerable step up since the band’s 2005 reunion; tracks like “Back to Your Heart” or “Your Weather” have grown to become some of my favorite by the band over time. He’s in top form on “Sweep It” as well, as single “Garden” illustrated upon release. Album closer “You Wonder” is another wonderful vehicle for Barlow’s talents, but “Garden” is where he really shines on this release by ornamenting its lyric with nervous hope and his signature sardonic wit (“It takes time living on a razor blade to know the way”).
Rhythm is the heartbeat of any great musical act, but of course with Dinosaur Jr., the big ticket will always be J Mascis’s guitars. It’s tough to not have heightened expectations for his playing when “Teen Age Riot” is about him, but somehow he’s managed to deliver yet again, this time by becoming more unpredictable and blending influences from all stages of his career. When they first emerged from Amherst, Massachusetts, Dinosaur Jr. originally described themselves as “ear-bleeding country”, a term which Mascis has embraced wholeheartedly when it comes to his guitar work on “Sweep It”. The distortion-soaked guitar heroics of the band’s early days walk hand in hand with the gentle and emotionally evocative acoustic playing of Mascis’s solo work on several tracks here, most notably “And Me”, which features galloping acoustic strumming alongside walls of high-gain riffing, while closer “You Wonder” sees Murph and J wander into Lou Barlow’s acoustic coffee house jam. “I Ain’t” sees these two worlds merge in a different, but more meaningful way; before Mascis’s outro solo, he shreds an entirely different, yet remarkable solo behind his vocals in the final verse. This is easily more technically impressive than the outro solo that follows, but his decision to prioritize feeling and musicality over technicality pays dividends and makes that hopeful halo appear right out of the gate.
Not every track hits as hard as the opener would lead you to believe; “Take It Back” is an easy choice for the album’s lowlight, a plodding slower piece that features both a saloon piano and a lack of identity. Dinosaur Jr. are at their best when letting their jangly side and deafening volume coexist, which is what makes album highlights like “I Ain’t”, “And Me”, and lead single “I Ran Away” so compelling. However, this also makes power-chord jams like “I Met the Stones” seem beneath them in some way, almost as if it were written by a band trying their hardest to sound like them.
“Sweep It Into Space” is more than capable of standing on its own two feet within the Dinosaur Jr. oeuvre. Its eclectic guitar work, energized disposition, and fantastic production by Vile allow it to exist among the very best of the band’s reunion work and make it a welcome improvement over “Give a Glimpse”. It’s not perfect, but for a band almost 40 years into their career, it represents something that I didn’t think was in the cards for them; a new chapter.