Let’s crunch some numbers real quick. I Bet On Sky is Dinosaur Jr.’s 10th album, and third since the seemingly inoperable rift between laconic guitar god J Mascis and emotional pillar-of-DIY bassist Lou Barlow was finally stitched back together. Dinosaur Jr. has now existed in its reunited form for seven years, two more than this lineup managed previously (1984-89, which encompassed the band’s formation and the releases of Dinosaur, You’re Living All Over Me, and Bug). Along with rock-solid drummer Murph, this lineup has now released two trilogies of albums, and while I Bet On Sky mostly sticks the landing for the end of the resurrected Dinosaur Jr.’s second trio of albums, it does come with its fair share of point-deducting wobbles.
Not that the album’s opening salvo betrays any of this. First track “Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know” is one of the most daring things the trio has put to tape since the reunion. Prog-rock synths float airily over some Mascis-ian approximation of a funk guitar riff, while Barlow’s ascending bass part and Murph’s steady pound give the song plenty of forward motion. Pianos are sprinkled liberally all over the song’s mid-section. With just less than two minutes left, something truly remarkable happens: Mascis holds back. Instead of blasting off into another one of his awe-inspiring, launch-a-hundred-new-guitar-player solos, he simply unspools a series of long, fuzzy single notes until the song’s conclusion. From there, we get the canon-worthy single “Watch The Corners,” with its insistent chug, halting chorus, two and a half-minute long guitar solo (which is only broken up by a ten-second acoustic interlude. What sounds like more high-pitched keys wail in the background, and the whole thing achieves that level of ecstatic bliss that marks all of Mascis’ best work.
If only some of this feeling could have been preserved for the next two tracks. While the not-confident, “aw shucks” attitude projected by Dinosaur Jr. has always been one of their biggest charms, “Almost Fare” and “Stick A Toe In” navel gaze almost to the point of falling asleep in their laps. Had they appeared on Beyond, or even Farm, things may be a little more forgivable. They could chalk it up to still shaking the cobwebs out. Despite being perfectly catchy songs, they (along with closer “See It On Your Side”) seem a little too textbook to be on the same album with game changers such as “Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know,” or a song like “What Was That,” which does what these songs are trying to do, but simply better, or the album title-quoting energy ball that is “Pierce The Morning Rain.”
Speaking of Barlow, he gets his two songs on I Bet On Sky, just as on the other two post-reunion albums, and, just as on the the other two post-reunion albums, he kills both of them. “Rude” is the heart-wrenching pop-punk single nobody knew Dinosaur Jr. had them, its bouncy bass parts and ultra-catchy chorus offering contrast to the latest episode of Barlow’s lyrical self-laceration, while “Recognition” plays a more conventionally hard-rocking card with just a tinge of prog gallop and complexity.
If I Bet On Sky contains one fatal flaw, it’s in its allowance of complacency to seep in. Beyond and Farm were by no means perfect albums, but both were delivered with the feeling that there was still something very much at stake. First, it was the the apprehension of whether or not the reunion would work in the first place. Then, it was whether they could make it stick. Having proven both of these things, the bar was set quite high. Unfortunately, instead of being an ambitious failure, and despite all of the fantastic moments, I Bet On Sky makes the potentially more damaging fault of being “just alright.”