Despite being best known for the skull-crushing volume of his work with Dinosaur Jr., J. Mascis has dabbled in acoustic music in the past, most notably on his 1996 album Martin + Me (Martin being his acoustic guitar). But Several Shades of Why is easily his most accomplished and best-crafted acoustic album to date, as well as one of his most tightly focused collections in years. Several Shades of Why's ten songs are rooted in Mascis' acoustic guitar picking, and rather than simply stripping his amp-blasting tunes down to a quieter arrangement, most of these songs appear to have been written with an acoustic in mind, and his elemental but lively melodic figures are surprisingly nimble and shine in this more subtle and dynamic setting. Mascis has also brought in a handful of gifted acquaintances to join him on these sessions, including Kurt Vile on guitar, Sophie Trudeau on violin, and Pall Jenkins on keyboards, and while the musicians have left the right amount of space in the songs, there's just enough detail in these performances to give them an impressive depth and texture that serves them well. Mascis has never been known as an especially lucid lyricist, and this album hardly challenges that assumption, but the tenor of this album speaks to a more sincere and mature emotional core than much of the writer's previous work, and as mushy as his vocals traditionally are, here he doesn't reach for effect, but simply speaks to his heart and mind. Several Shades of Why isn't an album that sounds grandiose, but it's a strong and thoughtful work that features plenty of fine songs performed by a gifted guitarist with an equally capable ensemble by his side. If it isn't quite a masterpiece, along with Dinosaur Jr.'s surprisingly strong reunion albums, this suggests Mascis has been quietly enjoying an impressive career renaissance, as if the venerable slacker has discovered something welcome in the onset of maturity.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming