Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Melody Maker, October 8th 1988

by Simon Reynolds

I’ve no time for the fully-rounded character in rock, all those aspiring spokesmen like Bragg, That Petrol Emotion, Sting, Bono, Stuart Adamson, who try to straddle the personal and the political, and divide their energy equally between healthy desire and adult concern. No, the interesting things in rock are coming from one-dimensional characters at either extreme of the spectrum--either the selflessly militant or the dormant self-absorbed. On one side, the fanatic survivalists (Public Enemy, Front 242, Metallica), who are physically and musically stripped down, disciplined and on-the-one. On the other, the defeatists and drifters (Nick Cave, Morrissey, Vini Reilly) or the langorous absentees-from-reality (My Bloody Valentine, AR Kane).

No prizes for guessing which camp Dinosaur Jr flop into. J. Mascis’ lethargy is legendary, verging on cliché, and something he no doubt plays up slightly for the microphone. If Morrissey is “half a person”, Mascis consists of some even smaller fraction of a whole and healthy human. And Bug, basically a slightly more emphatic and vivid replay of last year’s You’re Livin’ All Over Me, is another document of a “life” that seems to be drained and devoid of all the zestful crackle that word usually suggests.

In many ways Dinosaur Jr’s “concerns” are the eternal preoccupations and stumbling blocks of parochial US youth: how to kickstart your life; feelings of claustrophobia; the chasm between Amercan dreams and American reality; vacillation in the face of your obligation to yourself to wrench free in search of something better. These impasses have been “dealt” with (that’s to say, not resolved, just suspended in glorious mid-air between hope and despair), many times before, most superlatively by Husker Du and The Replacements. What’s different about Dinosaur Jr is the extremity of their apathy (for Mascist, the struggle isn’t to get away but to get out of bed) and a particular iridescence that veins their grey gusting guitars, little rainbow refractions in the glum, hurtling stormclouds.

Like most great miserabilists, the limits of Mascis’ voice shape his melodies--which are all chips off the same block, all unmistakeably Dinosaur Jr, all just a little bit déjà vu. The effect is rather comforting, but the samey-ness adds to the feeling that with Dinosaur Jr we never really “go” anywhere.

“No Bones” could almost be a “manifesto’ for the group. When I interviewed them, I remarked on Mascis’ boneless, rag doll sheepishness, on how it was the appropriate demeanour for someone whose life lacked any kind of spiritual spine. But in another sense, Dinosaur Jr are dissolving rock’s vertebrae, as the riff, powerchord and bassline are almost lost in a blizzard of violently serrated haze.

“Don’t”, the last track, is where the caustic dreaminess of their sound is at its most sulphuric and psychedelic. It’s a gorgeous cataract of opalescent Hendrix guitar, through which is blasted the soiling, scorching hurt of the repeated plaint--“WHY? WHY DON’T YOU LIKE ME?”--bellowed by what sounds like a voice put through a fuzzbox.

In their strange combination of urgency and ennui, bang and whimper, Dinosaur Jr are the latest angle on one of the oldest rock themes: “I don’t live today.” But understand that this lifeless life, this fogginess of the depths of torpor, this blurry indistinctness of the edges between yourself and the world that comes with inaction--all this is the necessary grey shrinkage of consciousness you must go through before you get to dream up the kind of visionary new colours that Dinosaur Jr drizzle down on us almost absentmindedly.

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