Dinosaur Jr. - Farm - Cover Art

Jagjaguwar, 2009
[rating:8/10]

Dinosaur Jr. epitomises the reunion success story. When the original trio reformed for a European tour in 2005, I doubt anyone expected an album as youthful, vital, and just plain good as 2007’s Beyond. Though not a return to the sound of their early years Beyond showed the focus, power, and energy the band lost with the expulsion of bassist Lou Barlow following 1988’s Bug. What Farm shows is growth, moving away from the chaos of their earlier work and the lukewarm grunge of the ’90s, towards a heavy, distortion-encased pop sound that boasts the beauty and consistency the band has struggled to find since their inception.

The best thing about opener “Pieces?” The riff kicks ass. Over a world of melodic distortion, singer and guitarist J. Mascis nasily croaks the sort of vague, aching poetry that would have felt at home on any of the band’s first three albums. He sounds older, warier, but still desperate, wide-eyed, and self-consciously in love — all the qualities that made him such a compelling songwriter twenty years ago. This vulnerability returns on the beautiful, sludgey ballad “Plans”. “And I don’t know what to bring/I get pissed at everything/I need you to see me sane/Can you believe it?” Mascis moans, reminding us that being an adult is just like being a teenager, only achier. But it’s the guitar solos that show the purest feeling. Mascis has grown from a scrappy teen prodigy into a masterful virtuoso, a player who emotes through his instrument, and it’s this that elevates the songs from being very good to fantastic.

Bassist Lou Barlow’s “Your Weather” adds little to a songwriting repertoire that boasts triumphs like Sebadoh’s “Brand New Love.” Though Mascis’ songs shine in this realm of soaring sludge-pop, Barlow’s effort feels generic. Taken into a high fidelity world, this songwriter, notorious for his devotion to one-takes and tape hiss, seems somehow less honest and powerful. Beside Barlow’s stumble, the Mascis-penned  “Over It” feels even more successful. It’s the sort of slacker anthem the ’80s and ’90s extolled, something artists born in this decade have so often tried, and failed, to replicate.

“Said The People” creeks and groans like a sinking ship, climaxing at the three-minute mark with a grief-stricken solo. It holds its own for three minutes more, time enough for a reprise that, winding in and out of a new guitar melody, becomes a truly beautiful moment that no metaphor can match. “See You” strips away the distortion and flirts with jangle-pop; to some, this may seem a display of how the band has softened with age, but to me, it’s proof that Mascis’ songs have become strong enough not to need the coating of distortion to stand out. “I Don’t Wanna Go There,” a chunky, folk-grunge jam, meanders, but not aimlessly, and though the melody and lyrics lack, there’s enough in the rhythm and tone to make it compelling. “Imagination Blind” seems a curious choice of closer: as with Barlow’s first offering, it’s not bad, but amidst so many classics in the making, it feels hollow making for an untriumphant finish.

More than anything, Farm is a statement of confidence and security. Dinosaur Jr. knows what it’s capable of: great songs, for one thing, and not just lyrically or melodically, but tonally. This is a band whose worst songs still sound good, if only because of the force of the distortion and the timbre of Mascis’ whine. After twenty years of personal turmoil and a desperate search for a sound, Dinosaur Jr. finally sounds comfortable in its own gnarled, reptilian skin.

Nathan Goldman