When an artist, like J Mascis, has had a prolific and varied career it is easy to associate them with a certain kind of music. More directly, it becomes unexpected that they would make any kind of music that is not their usual fare. Mascis, best known as a member of the influential proto-grunge act Dinosaur Jr., has also in recent years explored classic rock revivalism with the band Sweet Apple and metal in Witch and Upside Down Cross. So, it comes with a certain degree of surprise then, that his new solo album, Several Shades of Why, is a soulful and poignant indie-folk excursion that finds him plumbing his emotional depths.
“I wish there was a place where we made sense,” Mascis howls on the excellent album opener, “Listen to Me.” It’s tempting, given that these songs are a rare foray for the musician, to think he is not only talking to a hopeless love, but to the songs themselves. Several Shades of Why seems to be that place. For instance on the eponymous second track a guitar is plainly strummed while a violin cuts mournfully across the tune, making for a song which at once expresses a deepening sense of sadness and hails Mascis’ musical ability.
Arguably Mascis’ greatest asset on Several Shades of Why is his voice, which seems so perfectly suited for this musical angle; it seems ignorant to suggest he may ever have been associated with metal or grunge. Combining the sound of Neil Young, Eddie Vedder, Kurt Cobain, and The Drive-By Trucker’s Patterson Hood, Mascis’ voice seems to morph to fit into each song perfectly, be it a weary moan or a lovelorn plea.
While fans of Mascis’ heavier work will probably feel lost here, a close look will see that the intelligently interwoven instrumentation of bands like Dinosaur Jr is here in full force. In many ways this may be his most fully realised guitar work foray to date: for instance in the heartbreaking number “Is It Done,” Mascis lets lyrical tension build, acoustic guitar picked through finger runs before he bursts forth with the line “I know my soul is ravaged and I know my mom is gone/ I’ve been waiting for an answer, but the question takes too long.” The existential confession and sudden mood change are extenuated by a John Frusciante-worthy solo that bursts forth to compliment his plaintive declaration. The result is nothing short of moving.
While it is obvious that the album is one of therapeutic release, and that much of what is being sung is not exactly chipper material, Mascis still maintains a sense of optimism and never gets bogged down in the cliché-ridden word of poor-me music. This may be in part due to the inclusion of pals Ben Bridwell from Band of Horses and Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene. No doubt Bridwell and Drew serve not only as backing players but buoys; the confessional album’s tendency to sink is too easy without the involvement of others. Instead the work we get is emotive and genuine. On the final track, Mascis asks “What happened to my ma?” and we also make the appeal, we too feel the surge of anguish.
Ultimately, this seems to be the intention of Several Shades of Why, a beautiful and revealing look into one of our most criminally overlooked artist’s minds. Perhaps J Mascis will retreat back behind a wall of sound, but his listeners can’t begrudge him that. Here he has opened himself and created a lasting work that will stay with those who are willing to accept it; a conversation that will play over and over again as long as we let it.