Review Summary: What we've always done, of course!
J Mascis turned 58 years old this past December, and his accomplishments in life thus far are nothing short of astonishing. He has fronted one of indie rock’s most beloved outfits for the better part of 40 years, peaking with a crossover hit in the mid-90’s that briefly catapulted him to stardom. When that band went on hiatus for a decade, he embarked on a modest, yet thriving solo career. Sonic Youth wrote a song about him becoming the president. Kurt Cobain asked him to join Nirvana once. He bought a 2016 Volkswagen Golf and subsequently took the greatest photo in recorded human history. If you’re wondering what could possibly be the next step after such a vaunted catalog of achievements, you’re in luck, because based on his newest album’s title, it seems as though J Mascis is wondering the exact same thing. As he nears sixty years of age, Mascis is a man who knows who he is, what kind of music he wants to make, and what works when making that type of music. He’s been adding little wrinkles to his formula at every step of his musical journey, and What Do We Do Now
sees him drawing on all of these influences to attempt to craft something new out of the ingredients that have fueled past triumphs.
Instrumentally, What Do We Do Now
is an intentional amalgamation of Mascis’ most memorable songwriting sensibilities, and capably demonstrates both his acoustic and more dynamically ferocious styles. Opener “Can’t Believe We’re Here” exists at a crossroads between these two avenues, strutting to center stage as the curtain rises with an in-your-face jangle that is both undeniably Mascis and undeniably infectious. It showcases the first of a series of face-melting yet melodically sophisticated solos that will ensue over the album’s runtime, while also delineating an important distinction in what makes a Mascis song work. “Can’t Believe We’re Here”’s arpeggiated double-tracked acoustics grab the listener’s attention from the get go and relegate Mascis’s vocal to its most effective position in the mix, as a melodic supplement that is both crucial and volatile. Mascis’s vocals are…an acquired taste, to say the least, and the tracks that attempt to push his voice front and center range from forgettable to outright disastrous. “I Can’t Find You”, despite its impressive solo, is too lyrically toothless to make an emotional impact, and despite being tasked to carry the entire arrangement, the vocals are unable to do so as the midtempo instrumentals slog and bore in the background. “It’s True” is a similar story, once again boasting a hair-raising solo section, but its god-awful hook forces the song to shoot itself in the foot before it can get an inch off the ground. When there is more energy to be found within the non-solo instrumentals, the album flourishes. Previously released singles “Right Behind You” and “Set Me Down” come to mind, with the former utilizing jaunty syncopation to entertain, and the latter kicking off with thunderous unison hits while cleverly mixing in the soothing frequencies of a grand piano.
A wise philosopher king named Cecil who gave my Toyota a jump when I was late to work once said “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” J Mascis and Cecil have probably crossed paths at one point or another, because he seems to have taken this advice more and more to heart with every release he puts out. What Do We Do Now
is a smörgåsbord of everything we have come to expect from a J Mascis project, and while a multitude of listeners may find themselves clamoring for fresher ideas or a deviation from his tried-and-true formula, it is borderline impossible to listen to the indie rock legend’s latest output and deny that they got what they came for.