Every year a particular few albums are announced that excite us above and beyond others. And after hearing about the release of Several Shades of Why, J Mascis’ latest solo album, we were guilty of setting the bar high for another hard-hitting rock album that would leave us in wonder of Mascis’ jaw-dropping guitar skills.
You see, we’ve come to expect a lot from Mascis. As the front man for Dinosaur Jr., the indie rock band that has produced album after album of seamless and unique alternative rock music since the mid 1980s, Mascis has made a distinct name for himself. He’s proved to be one of today’s most talented guitarists, able to produce astounding melodic guitar solos under the guise of Dino Jr.’s signature waves of heavy feedback and distortion.
Mascis has mastered the quiet-loud effect. His use of high gain and loud, raw guitars paired with somber, almost apathetic vocals has become undoubtedly recognizable as his own. And with the help of his bandmates, he’s employed that effect flawlessly and picked up hordes of loyal fans along the way.
But Several Shades of Why is unlike anything else he’s ever done. In fact, if it weren’t Mascis’ unmistakable vocals, we might have never paired this album with the Dinosaur Jr. lead singer at all.
Almost entirely acoustic, Several Shades of Why is certainly a step in a new direction for Mascis. There are but a few solos, and none that truly showcase his unique style and ability. There is no distortion, or wailing instrumentals. There are no face-shredding riffs. And serving as the follow-up release to 2009’s Farm, which had all of those things and more, a fan’s initial reaction might be disappointment and upset.
Fortunately, it’ll take about 3:10 – the length of album’s opening track – for any upset to wash away forever. Several Shades of Why might lack the volume, but it offers up so much more in return.
For the first time, fans get a glimpse of what Mascis is truly thinking. Previously characterized by ambiguous and impersonal songwriting, Several Shades of Why is emotional and explorative. Rhythm strumming and delicate finger-picking deliver a notably softer sound in a notably softer package.
In “Can I”, Mascis dwells on overcoming lost love and moving on in his life, “I’ve been lost and lonely, but still I made it through/If I lose again there’s nothing left to do.” A lone acoustic solo cuts over the track and cries more clearly than Mascis himself. “Not Enough” is a somber love song in which Mascis expresses wanting more from a friendship. His worn voice is painful and poignant, lurching over soft-strummed guitars and a clunky tambourine. The track also features vocal accompaniment from Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew and Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell.
The scarce and subtle uses of electrics throughout Several Shades of Why are all moments to savor. “Is It Done” breaks from its bouncing acoustic rhythms into an auto-tuned and screaming electric guitar that slices into the track with a melancholy ferocity and adds to Mascis’ heavy words. “Very Nervous and Love” is quiet and abstract, featuring soft and echoing guitar effects reminiscent of U2’s Edge.
Several Shades of Why is a huge step in a direction much different than what we’ve come to expect from J Mascis. It proves that an already-diverse and established singer and guitarist possesses yet another dimension, one that looks much deeper within and carries heavier weight through lighter instrumentals.
It may not be what fans were expecting, but there’s no doubt Several Shades of Why will be notched as some of Mascis’ best work yet and will almost certainly widen his influence into broader genres of music and songwriting. You’ll be intoxicated with the first listen and spiral even deeper with the next. The only disappointment that comes with this album is that it only lasts 41 minutes.
Not to worry. The tracks on Several Shades of Why are like aged wine; it just gets better and better.
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