J Mascis Makes the Most of His Time on 'What Do We Do Now'

BY Anthony BoirePublished Feb 2, 2024


J Mascis returns with his greatest solo effort yet on What Do We Do Now. Dinosaur Jr. may be where Mascis shows off his most outrageous ideas — 2021’s fantastic Sweep It Into Space was a recent high point — but his ancillary efforts in the last decade have been equally unmissable. 

Mascis’s last few solo outings are a mix of quiet, contemplative folk with tinges of his wilder side, and What Do We Do Now finds him bulking up his sound with sacrificing the tender songwriting. He’s brought the band – a full drum kit, plus keys from the B-52’s Ken Maiuri, steel guitar from Matthew "Doc" Dunn and the glorious guitar solos that Mascis had left behind on recent release — to help him grapple with grief and loss on some of the best solo music he’s ever written. 

There’s some Big Star in the tunes here, and even some shadows of Loretta Lynn. The arrangements are warm, rich and serve these gorgeous rock gems perfectly, sitting in the sweet spot between his solo acoustic folk and his more famous electric sorcery. 

“Think we’re all gonna subside / Trying to patch this hole inside / Wish I could tell you we’re all fine” Mascis sings on opener “Can’t Believe We’re Here” — He’s mulling a friend’s passing, or perhaps just the loss of that friendship, but the pain slowly morphs into an acceptance of mutual expiration. This story seems to continue on the country leaning earworm “Right Behind You,” where he assuages the loneliness of that same friend, telling them he’s not far behind. “We can’t believe it’s me / Talking about true, free, all we needed to be / Right behind you, me, trying to believe” goes the chorus mantra. 

Maiuri’s keyboard work across the record is incredibly warm, classic in tone and melody with Mascis often choosing to pan the piano completely to one side and the acoustic guitar doubled and hard-panned on both sides too. On the piano-driven “I Can’t Find You” those wide stereo choices culminate in a heavenly slide section by Dunn as Mascis pines, “Let it go away / Hurts my head / If you want to stay / Wish I’d said / I don’t know you.”

For a record that feels like a teary bear hug, “Hangin Out” is the uneasy outlier. The pianos start slamming a crunchy chromatic progression under Mascis’s solo, and it feels doomy by contrast. He’s never sounded better, his voice mixed with a clarity that lets his impressive falsetto shine. It’s used to maximum effect right before the explosive solo on closer “End is Gettin Shaky,” making for one of the most arresting moment on the record; “Take me away / I’m all gone / Watched you die / Left me cold,” he sings.

Every player does heavy lifting on What Do We Do Now, but it’s Mascis himself who pushes himself furthest to deliver the goods. Between his riffy, arpeggiated acoustic strumming and the strongest vocal performance of his career, he cries out, grief-stricken, to hold on to life yet to be lived. With a record this strong so deep into his career, he’s definitely making the most of his own time.

(Sub Pop)

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