In most cases, being a suburban teenager is, more than anything else, boring as all fuck. There’s nothing much to do that’s legal. Your life is ultimately subject to the whims of people who can’t really get it. You, your friends, and the people you’d like to sleep with are all way too inarticulate and inexperienced to really communicate. You spend most of your time waiting for something to happen.
A large part of J Mascis’s genius is how well he distills that dull, brutal anxiety. His songs are never about partying, getting laid or smashing the state. If they’re about anything discernable, they’re almost always about being lonely, ruminating, waiting, and not getting what you want or even really knowing what that is. This frustration is most pronounced in teenagers, but it’s hardly irrelevant for anyone. Without the chaos of punk or the theatrics of FM rock, it shines like the North Star in the Arizona sky.
From his plaintive, cracking vocals and his fiercely inarticulate lyrics to his childlike, self-created album artwork, J Mascis has played his laconic awkward-teenager shtick through almost as many incarnations as his most obvious influence, Neil Young. And every time, from the sloppy punk of Deep Wound through the cathartic fuzz-crunch of Dinosaur Jr to the thick, melodic FM rock of late-period Dino and the Fog, his penchant for lonesome, haunting, courageously awkward songwriting has kept him interesting.
This has always been most clear when Mascis specifically wasn’t shredding. Before, that meant his live acoustic set Martin & Me, which demonstrated why certain songs from uneven late-period Dino LPs, such as “Get Me,” had been so touching and memorable in spite of the racket.
Now, he drops his first studio acoustic disc, Several Shades of Why, and it’s as lilting and boldly distinctive and profoundly sad as can be expected. While Young’s acoustic work often comes across as smug and knowing, Mascis’s nerves are as raw as they’ve ever been.
He invites up a bevy of special guests: Kurt Vile, violinist Sophie Trudeau of the Montreal circuit, Ben Birdwell of Band of Horses on backing vocals… even neo-psych journeyman Matt Valentine is in there somewhere. And they’re all perfectly unobtrusive. Even when Mascis finally solos on the electric, it doesn’t change the mood — at that point, the flow of sad, pretty songs is too well established that the minor distractions only enrich it.