Dinosaur / You’re Living All Over Me / Bug
Merge / Merge / Merge
ost everyone who writes about these early Dinosaur Jr. records approaches them personally, as if there is no distance between the music and the conditions that led them to discover the records and drew them to the group’s live shows. That’s slightly worrying: sometimes there’s nothing worse than a combination of nostalgia and personal recollection, the two impulses threatening to overwhelm illumination in waves of indulgent text. It’s hard to get around it, though: Dinosaur Jr.’s music was the most personal of its time. My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth immersed their personal-political ambivalence in torrents of guitar noise; Butthole Surfers ran with scatological humour as expressive deflection; Spacemen 3 discovered gospel and the blues as a way of channelling their responses through pre-determined forms. Dinosaur Jr. were, in comparison, a confused mess: emotionally disentangled yet intensely felt, indolent and passive yet capable of incredible fury and volume. Their navigation of extreme emotional binaries suited the characters behind the music: Lou Barlow’s earnestness repeatedly butting against J Mascis’ passive-aggressive torpor, with Murph the exhausted intermediary.
Those tensions reflect the group’s pre-history, the influences the members brought to the music. Much of Dinosaur Jr.’s inchoate intensity comes direct from hardcore (Lou and J met through HC group Deep Wound), while the striking melodicism of Mascis’ best songs was divined via classic 70s rock and 80s English pop music. Hardcore’s angst-driven need for ‘meaning’ or venting of anger was repeatedly hobbled at the knees by the post-countercultural bucolics of Neil Young’s country records Harvest and Old Ways (still, to these ears, the templates for much of the melody in Dinosaur Jr.—it’s no surprise that Mascis referred to their music as ‘ear-bleeding country’.) What is central to Dinosaur Jr.’s music though is not the way it deftly crossed these disparate genres, but that it denied them any real priority—the strained maelstrom of influence that goes on in their sound also reflecting the inter-personal hell the line-up put itself through.
That said, one of the most interesting things about these first three Dinosaur Jr. records is discovering that their music was at its most incongruent when the group came closest to presenting a unified front. The trio were never fooled into believing groups had to be gangs of best mates, but when Dinosaur was released, they at least looked as though they all had some kind of intense emotional investment in the music. Dinosaur sounds like a group struggling to find its own sound. There are flashes of directions not taken, such as the rockabilly chug of the intro to “Cats in A Bowl,” the way “Forget the Swan” sounds as niggling and reedy as The Cure circa Seventeen Seconds. If Dinosaur is the sum of too many parts—a little 80s post-punk here, the acid-fried psych-country of the Meat Puppets there, with metal and 60s guitar pop occasionally shooting through the trio’s strange, borderline-unwieldy songs—the combinatory drive of the music sometimes transcended: “Repulsion” needles through a sweet melody that arcs across the entire song, and “Severed Lips” was beautifully melancholy, with Mascis riffing on the ‘blowup-doll-as-pacified-lover’ tip, the opposite to Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home A Heartache.”
Mascis’ early songs shifted through parts as though he was sifting rocks for gold. On Dinosaur, that piecemeal, modular approach to writing sometimes left the songs unhinged and flapping in the breeze, as with “Does It Float,” where Mascis crams several themes together, hoping that sheer willpower will force them to fit together. When You’re Living All Over Me hit in 1987, the seams were resolved. Mascis slid further into mush-mouthed indolence: there have been few songwriters with lyrics so predisposed to uncertainty or indifference. When he sings “gotta connect with you girl, but forget how” in “Sludge Feast,” he sounds expired, as though the whole weight of the situation is so cumbersome he’ll inevitably shrug the situation away—the protagonist who’ll just “guess he’ll crawl,” as in “Little Fury Things.” Mascis’ protagonists are rarely active—at best, they contemplate action from a distance.
You’re Living All Over Me is the birth of Mascis as underground guitar hero, his solos wiggling out of the songs like polychromatic snakes chewing their way out of a box, wah-wah and fuzz pedals used as intensifiers, notching up the sheer splattered excess of the playing. “Kracked” and “Sludge Feast” slot these moments into songs that created a template for a new cross-breed of pop and metal that was all but ignored (to the detriment of the genre’s development, natch), but you can’t help but feel that You’re Living All Over Me is really about Mascis coming out as a pop songwriter. A few of his most genuinely affecting songs are on this record, with “In A Jar” jumping hoops through a set of tumbleweed chord changes hinged to a lyric where Mascis appears to be a cow “grazing by your window.” “The Lung” best summarises the powers of the group: one uncomplicated lyric—“no way to collapse the lung, breeds the doubt in everyone,” perhaps the simplest song on the record, split in two by a star-scraping guitar solo. Yet it captures the tension between indifference and total overload that makes You’re Living All Over Me such a tense, compelling listen.
Touring in support of You’re Living All Over Me tore the group apart. When the time came to record 1988’s Bug, Mascis took control of the studio, with Barlow and Murph only dropping by to record their parts. This is the birth of the second phase of Dinosaur Jr., with Mascis as the sole focus of the group, calling in members and session hands as needed. Many consider Bug the weak link in the chain, the album where Barlow and Murph were sidelined and the group dynamic was dissolved into the primordial fug. But I’ve always thought it was Dinosaur Jr.’s strongest work—perhaps because it’s pure Mascis, a perfect encapsulation of his character. The record is positively consumed by him; there is no air in the songs, making for a holistic listen, a completely self-directed set.
“Freak Scene” was the group’s first “hit,” a college radio classic that also made a minor appearance on the British singles charts: you could also hear it blasting out of Australian broadcaster 2JJ with almost alarming regularity. As my first exposure to the group, it was a galvanising call—a pop song with its contours melted, scraped away by the scouring impact of distortion and one of Mascis’ most heroic solos. “Freak Scene” addressed the heavy circumstances that had struck the group, dealing with the relationship between Mascis and Barlow: “the weirdness flows between, anyone could tell to see us.” Its partner is “Yeah We Know,” whose sludgy, rolling structure evokes a partnership in a rut, antagonistic and yet caught within a kind of inertia that mitigates against the closure of the situation—“bottled up, stored away, always ready to give way.” “Don’t” is the final song in Bug’s ‘inter-band trauma’ triumvirate, with Mascis convincing Barlow to scream, “why, why don’t you like me?” over the group’s most indulgent noise freak-out. (In Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azerrad notes that Barlow sang the song so forcefully he ended up coughing up blood.)
However, that is a one-sided reading of Bug. Not enough attention is paid to the record’s scrum of gorgeous moments. The change of tempo in “They Always Come” induces a breathtaking ‘break-of-sunlight’ moment that’s a pure evocation of the rapture of great pop music: Mascis answers the call with keening guitar and a lyrical denouement that mops all the melancholy from the world’s brow. “No Bones” hangs low and heavy from the body—the accompanying video reflecting the song’s internal ambivalence, made up equally of live footage and shots and sequences that evoke the mysterious other-world of American underground film-making, all hazy and ambiguous. “The Post” is a humid grotto thick with moss and peat, where some of Mascis’ most calamitous guitar suddenly resolves to a strangely sweet chorus. The addition of single b-side “Keep the Glove” sends the record out on a surprisingly light note, a more assured version of the “ear bleeding country” the group envisioned on their debut record.
Later Dinosaur Jr. records were all Mascis: even when maintaining the façade of a group dynamic, you knew that records like Without A Sound and Green Mind were streamed direct from Mascis’ head. It was still a good place to be—Mascis was one of the most emotionally affecting songwriters of his generation. But on those later records, Mascis had resolved both the tensions of maintaining a group (by streamlining ancillary players) and his place in the world (by falling into a pattern whereby he had to give just enough to the outside world to be able to get by). These first three Dinosaur Jr. records are all about the gap between what you expect of the world, and what the world actually offers you. And though they may offer no real way of navigating that space of disappointment and frustration, they are documents of one group’s attempt to tussle with expectation and the emotional disengagement that eventuates when you’ve been burnt one too many times. That the group would completely fall apart after these records is no surprise—you can only balance for so long on a knife’s edge before it cleaves you in two.
Reviewed by: Jon Dale
Reviewed on: 2005-08-02
|Recent Reviews By This Author|