As earnest goes, J Mascis couldn’t be more so on his fifth solo LP, What Do We Do Now. The record, recorded in true DIY fashion at his home in Bisquiteen, Western Massachusetts, is also potentially his best and most melodic to date with the full band treatment given. While most of the instrumentation is by Mascis himself, he’s joined by Ken Mauri of The B-52s on keys and session whizz Matthew ‘Doc’ Dunn on steel guitar, both of whom add layers of depth, which bring What Do We Do Now into full technicolour.
While rightly known for his work with lo-fi noise merchants Dinosaur Jr., Mascis frees himself when solo to let his own voice shine through his love-hurt, heart-on-sleeve lyrics of a similar vein to Jason Lytle’s Grandaddy or Mark Oliver Everett’s Eels work. It’s basic 4/4 rhythms, acoustic guitars, big electric lead solos and emotive piano to strengthen each track. At the tender age of 58 and having been rocking since the early ’80s, Mascis continues to prove simplicity really does work best.
Each of the 10 songs here are instantly relatable to those everyday relationships we take for granted but which have so much power over our emotional state. On ‘Right Behind You’ he plainly states: “Talkin bout you, me / where we thought we’d be”.
It’s a common theme on opening tracks ‘Can’t Believe We’re Here’ (“All the ways it’s going wrong / explanation just can’t win”) and the album’s title track (“I’ve been laughing but I’m lonesome / out of luck, ran out of steam”.
It continues in this vein following a similar format but never really feels formulaic. Masics’ crooning vocal fits the mood, feeling natural and believable, perhaps coming from a place of being an outsider both with his band on the outskirts of the indie mainstream and as a modern solo act. It makes lines like: “Couple people see me, couple people try / it’s not enough to get me through, waited all this time”, from ‘You Don’t Understand Me’ resonate for people whether familiar with his career or not.
Where his previous record Elastic Days leaned into the acoustic troubadour harmonies he admittedly does so well, What Do We Do Now elevates his songwriting ability through the extra hands of Mauri and Dunn.
As he sings on ‘Set Me Down’, “Get ready, unsteady, we’ll leave today…who needs it?”, it feels like an invitation, a call-to-arms to the listener to focus on getting our own shit together to deal better with the world outside.
Despite Dinosaur Jr. remaining a constantly active presence, this album is evidence of further development of a rich seam of melodic inspiration. Closing track ‘The End is Shaky’ nails the Mascis approach to living at this senior phase of his career: “Say the world’s crazy, say it dragged you down / lost it but I’m lazy, find another sound.” Quite right.