Since his emergence in the mid-1980s as Dinosaur Jr.‘s frontman, J Mascis has served as a paragon of the “slacker rock” aesthetic. Given his prolificacy over the last three decades, that label now feels like a bit of a misnomer, but it’s also easy to see why it’s stuck: Mascis, with his laconic drawl of a singing voice and mostly static pool of influences, makes music that exudes an untroubled placidity that’s tempting to mistake for laziness.
Elastic Days, Mascis’s third solo album, does little at first to dispel this impression. Like its predecessors, 2011’s Several Shades of Why and 2014’s Tied to a Star, the album finds Mascis in comfortable aesthetic territory, playing stripped-down, roots-flavored variations of Dinosaur Jr.‘s ragged guitar rock. Even the pencil-based cover art by John Brattin—which simultaneously suggests a German Expressionist homage and a stoner’s detention-hall notebook doodle—fits in neatly with the rest of Mascis’s library, recalling not only Marq Spusta’s whimsical designs for his last two albums, but also Maura Jasper’s iconic sketch for 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me.
Beneath the surface, however, is some of Mascis’s most accomplished solo work to date. Always an underrated craftsman, he brings his knack for seemingly effortless hooks to the fore on Elastic Days: Opening track “See You at the Movies” boasts one of his catchiest choruses since 1988’s “Freak Scene,” and the melodies on songs like “Web So Dense” and the poignant title track are surprisingly pretty. Mascis carries these hooks with some of the most emotive—and clearly audible—singing of his career, even slipping briefly into a fragile falsetto on the melancholic “I Went Dust.”
The album also doesn’t shy away from Mascis’s reputation for guitar-shredding. Ten of its 12 tracks build to a signature ear-splitting solo, each of which seems to pour out of him so organically that it doesn’t matter how at odds they sometimes feel with the otherwise mild arrangements. It’s a welcome shift for purely utilitarian reasons: Mascis has always been a better guitarist than songwriter, and a better songwriter than singer. But his guitar heroics also add an appealing edge to the album’s softer moments, as when a particularly fiery solo lights up the delicate chorus of “Sky Is All We Had.”
Indeed, Elastic Days needs as much tonal variation as it can get: At times, especially in its latter half, the album threatens to succumb to its mellowness. Always the most hippie-adjacent of his generation of alt-rockers, the 52-year-old Mascis is now unafraid to make music best appreciated while passing a joint around a campfire; if the title of “Picking Out the Seeds” doesn’t make his source of inspiration clear, then its laidback country-rock arrangement surely will. Luckily, Mascis peppers his songs with just enough stylistic shifts to keep them from sounding samey (the moody “Cut Stranger,” with its finger-picked minor-key guitar line, is a particular late-album standout).
For better or worse, Elastic Days is vintage J Mascis—an album that feels so natural to the artist that it may be easy to take it for granted. Mascis is no stranger to being compared to Neil Young, but here the comparison feels especially apt, particularly the Young of 1975’s Zuma, with exquisite melodies sitting alongside gnarled guitar excursions, presented with apparent indifference to their incongruity. Like Zuma, Elastic Days takes a little time to warm up to, but once it’s sunk in, it’s as comfortable as an old pair of jeans.