With familiar guitar fuzz and iconic downbeat vocals, J. Mascis kicks off Beyond — the first record by Dinosaur Jr.’s founding lineup in nearly twenty years (and the first of any kind in ten) — by proclaiming himself “Almost Ready.” Considering that it’s a near-perfect three-minute slice of the type of alternative rock the band perfected in 1986, it’s hard to imagine any sort of preparation occurring in those intervening years. Instead, we get an album that an Internet-deprived rube would easily mistake for the follow-up to this crew’s last album, 1988’s Bug. Perhaps the reconciliation between famously acrimonious bandmates Mascis and Lou Barlow was so tenuous that the only way they could agree to proceed was by doing things exactly the way they did before. The resulting music may not hold many surprises for the long-waiting faithful, but the nostalgic charm is more than enough to brand Beyond with the rarest of labels: a satisfying reunion record.
The album’s quality is a bit in doubt during its first half. After the terrific “Almost Ready,” the power ballad “Crumble” keeps up the sweet modesty until lapsing into one of Mascis’s signature pyrotechnic guitar solos. The string workout on “Crumble” is too short to be distracting, but elsewhere the obvious virtuosity overwhelms the pleasantly minimal arrangements. A late solo in “Pick Me Up” dislodges what was a more interesting guitar strut, and “This Is All I Came to Do” feels like a svelte three-minute corker bloated to the six-minute range. This is thematically disorienting as well. It’s hard to buy Mascis’s appealing “aw shucks” vocal moping when he can immediately bust out a Category 5 riff storm at any moment. Confident axemanship may have always a Dinosaur trademark, but it never used to feel so out of whack.
The record’s second half is more varied and appealing, blasting off with another concisely awesome Bug replica, “Been There All the Time.” Less obvious treats soon come with the trio of songs beginning with the optimistic “We’re Not Alone,” which for once evokes a summer drive more than a dank and foggy basement. After that jaunty blip, Mascis mixes it up again with a wheezing, ethereal vocal on “I Got Lost.” The addition of unusual textures to the simple mid-tempo-plus-solos template in these later songs is much appreciated. “Lightning Bulb,” Barlow’s second-half entry, is improved over his plodding first try. Where Mascis generally mumbles toward the ground, Barlow spits deliberate venom. As cymbals crash and drum fills rumble behind him, his genuinely bitter delivery is powerfully focused and well supported by his newfound old friends.
Beyond‘s highlights not only stand comfortably with Dinosaur’s legendary best, but they also sound like they could have been lost outtakes from the very same sessions. This warmly familiar comfort food is tasty indeed, but the fattier bits at the onset aren’t wildly substantive. As a return from the wilderness, the album’s overall quality is still encouraging. But the boys will likely have to do more than just effortlessly slip back into their own shoes. Here’s hoping that they can keep the current peace long enough to recapture forward momentum instead of just emphatically announcing their return.