Thurston Moore and J. Mascis are like an indie rock yin and yang. Moore’s Sonic Youth and Mascis’s Dinosaur Jr. both came up on SST records, and both are considered alt-rock guitar heroes. But where Moore deals in angular riffs and grinding layers, Mascis is all about the big hooks and blistering solos. Their different approaches haven’t stopped their worlds from colliding, of course. They’ve played shows together, and Moore recorded his last record, 2007’s Trees Across the Academy, at Mascis’s studio.
But for these guitar legends, something has changed recently. Maybe there’s something different in the water in Northampton, MA (where they both reside) because both artists have come out with solo records that deal in acoustic guitars, not electric shredding. Their aesthetics, though, remain intact. After the sweet melodic tunes of Mascis’s Several Shades of Why, Moore has given us the thickly layered but hushed Demolished Thoughts. The two may both be acoustic records, and act as interesting counterpoints to one another, but Moore has made a record every bit as distinct and, in its way, hard to ignore as his loudest Sonic Youth record.
The atmosphere he builds here comes mostly from his humming guitar work and expansive string arrangements. The songs move back and forth between fluid dreamscapes and slightly dissonant churning. Opener “Benediction” is perhaps the most direct song of the bunch. One guitar plucks away, and Moore’s voice is clear (if whispery) and high in the mix. Another guitar offers quick fills, and strings lilt over the track, but the song is more about melody than dense atmosphere. That changes with “January,” where the guitars tangle together in hard strums and strings cut through the foggy mix in quick bursts.
Perhaps no song represents these two sides of the record better than “Orchard Street.” In nearly seven minutes, it moves from its humble guitar-and-voice start to an impressive and haunting climax. The echoing of Moore’s voice hints at a worry, but it isn’t until the song’s second half that we really see it. Harps cascade hopefully, but they get overshadowed by the tense build-up of the strings. They have all the jaw-clenching snap of a suspense film score, breaking away from the comfort and simple beauty they add to “Benediction” but this shift preps us for the troubling speed of later tracks like “Circulation.”
As the songs move back and forth from drifting cuts like “Blood Never Lies” to the sinister shadows of “Orchard Street,” Moore’s lyrics move from love to worry, sometimes in the same line. He tells us to “whisper ‘I love you’ one thousand times into his ear” but only after he warns “you better hold your lover down.” Meanwhile, on “Circulation” he assures us “I’m not running away,” even when the paranoid speed of the song (which feels closer to a Sonic Youth cut than any other track here) hints that he might have a good reason, especially if “circulation makes her crazy.”
This mix of care and worry, of dreams and nightmares, makes for an album that is — for the simplicity of its elements — surprisingly unpredictable. Perhaps also surprising is how light Beck’s production is here, particularly considering the buzz that surrounded his inclusion in the project. The string arrangements hint at Beck’s own acoustic high-water mark, Sea Change, but this feels like shadows to the acoustic-rock numbers on Trees Across the Academy and, as a result, more like a next logical step for Moore than an aesthetic imposed by Beck. The careful layering and craft of these songs, built for larger shifts in mood over the record, may keep it from having any one particular moment that stands out. Still, Demolished Thoughts is a consistent and strong record all the way through. In the same way Mascis turned his talents effectively to quieter tones, Moore gives us a new perspective on the talents we’ve seen from him for decades. You can feel the angles in his playing here, they’re just not quite as sharp as his electric guitar work. Of course, that doesn’t mean these songs can’t cut.