More than most bands, Dinosaur Jr. left behind some unfinished business -- not just in one regard but two. First, there was the notoriously acrimonious dismissal of original bassist Lou Barlow after the group's third album, Bug, just before the band made the leap to the majors, but when the time came for guitarist/singer/songwriter J Mascis to retire the band's name, he slyly turned the words of his idol Neil Young upside down, choosing to fade away rather than burn out. After 1997's Hand It Over, Mascis ran out the clock, bringing his contract with Sire/Reprise to a close, doing some solo acoustic tours before forming the Fog and cutting a couple records with them without making any real impact outside of his devoted fans. And since he didn't break beyond his cult, Dinosaur Jr. seemed to belong solely to the history books -- the band that bridged the gap between the Replacements and Nirvana, the band that was seminal but not widely popular, a band that for whatever reason wasn't passed down to younger brothers and sisters the way their Boston compatriots the Pixies were. Perhaps it was because, unlike the Pixies, they summed up their times too well, since there was no other alt-rock musician that was as quintessentially slacker as J Mascis. With his laconic drawl and anthems of ambivalence, he was a figurehead for a generation who chose to stay on the sidelines, so sliding away from the spotlight was a logical path for Mascis: he never seemed to really want the fame, so it seemed that he'd be happier on the fringe, which is where he wound up.
All of this made the reunion of the classic J-Lou-Murph lineup in 2005 all the more surprising: there may have been unfinished business, but such a mess seemed inherent to their mystique. But the group got together to tour in support of reissues of their first three albums, and defying all logic, the reunion worked -- working so well that the band decided to record a full-length album, Beyond, releasing it in May 2007. The very existence of this new album is a surprise, but the real shock is that Beyond is a flat-out great record, a startling return to form for J Mascis as a guitarist and songwriter and Dinosaur Jr. as a band. Although this is from the lineup responsible for You're Living All Over Me and Bug, two records so drenched in noise they still sound like aural assaults decades after their original release, Beyond sonically resembles latter-day Dinosaur albums; it's not as harsh and it's stylistically varied, ranging from full-throttle rockers to skipping country-rock and elegiac ballads. In a way, this sounds like the album that could have been released instead of Green Mind if Lou had stuck around, or if Dinosaur made the kind of grand major-label debut many expected them to deliver in the days before Nevermind. Musically, this suits that description -- Beyond is not a breakthrough or reinvention, it's a consolidation of their strengths, which means it sounds very much like the band did at its peak -- but in terms of attitude, Mascis could never have made an album as assured as this in 1992, simply because he never was this confident. Naturally, this deliberate disengagement was a large part of Dinosaur Jr.'s appeal: it not only made them sound distinct from their predecessors, but Mascis' ambivalence about anything and everything made his guitar virtuosity and great songs seemed almost accidental, their very casualness proof of his genius.
Beyond is very different in that for the first time, Mascis is assertive about his talent. He sounds engaged -- in music, in life (as he winkingly acknowledges on the chorus of the opening "Almost Ready," "C'mon life/I'm almost ready") -- and it gives the album a powerful sense of purpose that the classic Dinosaur albums were lacking by their very design. But Beyond isn't great simply because it's cohesive; it's great because it's as bold, vital, and monstrous as their best early work. As soon as the album crashes open with "Almost Ready," it's clear that Dinosaur Jr. has tapped into the essence of their music, and their thundering roar sounds as vivid and thrilling as it was the first time around. After that visceral shock fades, it soon becomes apparent that Mascis' writing is as forceful and surprisingly melodic as his guitar playing, and it soon becomes apparent that he's no longer burying his heart or humor beneath his band's walls of sounds; they're proudly out on display. This fact is brought into sharp relief by Lou Barlow's songs, two tunes that are typically turned inward, yet they're enlivened by being delivered by this remarkable band, which gives Lou's songs a backbone they never quite had in Sebadoh. Plus, the very presence of Barlow's songs helps emphasize that Beyond is a full-fledged reunion, the sound of a group making amends and reconnecting with their strengths. Lou left the band because J didn't let his songs on Dinosaur's records, but now that they're back together, it's a fully collaborative effort, and the band is stronger for it, as this unexpectedly glorious reunion proves. Beyond isn't merely a worthy album from a reunited band, it's simply a great record by any standard.