Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Bob Mould - Silver Age/Beauty & Ruin/Patch the Sky

Twenty years ago, Bob Mould put out a record called The Last Dog and Pony Show.  At the time he put it out, he mused that the tour to support this album would be his last time out with a loud electric band.  At the time, the loud rock guitar trio thing was something he had been doing for 20 years and he thought it was time to think about doing other things.  He enjoys the “loud guitar thing” but he didn’t want it to become a parody.  He was 38 then, and he didn’t want to look forward to being like Neil Young when he was 50.  In that, he meant the acoustic shows were something beautiful, but he wasn’t sold on the work with Crazy Horse.  Playing the loud guitar music and jumping around was “a young man’s game” and he didn’t want to be that guy when he was 50.  He didn’t know whether he would be concentrating on solo acoustic performances or “something else”. 

We got a hint of that “something else” from inside The Last Dog and Pony Show [with Megamanic] – electronic music.  He discovered while making that “song” he had fun in the studio, something that usually eluded him.  His next album was full of dance and electronic “music” [Modulate].  Some people liked it, but most didn’t [including me].  It was around this same time that Bob Mould finally came to grips with being gay, and in his memoir See a Little Light, he wrote that "In order to have a new life, I had to have new music."  And so he did.  Whether or not he wanted to be like Neil Young, there is a parallel in that Neil also made music in the 1980s that didn’t endear himself with his fan base [electronic music (Trans), 1950s retro (Everybody’s Rockin’), and country (Old Ways)].  At least Bob Mould didn’t get sued by his own record company for not being himself.

Something happened with See a Little Light.  He unburdened himself of a lot of stuff, stuff that would take an entire other blog post to explain.  One would say the experience of writing the book was cathartic.  He found himself and actually started to like himself and his lifestyle.  So with much of his own personal turmoil behind him, he also found two musicians with whom enjoyed working - bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster.  He was back in a power trio format, just like Hüsker Dü and Sugar.  He was back in the loud electric band format he swore off in 1998, and I am happier for it.  He’s in his fifties, playing the loud guitar music that he decried as a “young man’s game”.  Maybe 52 is the new 38.

In 2012 he released Silver Age, which to these ears sound a lot like what Sugar would be doing today if they hadn’t broken up in 1996.  This is a good thing, especially when one considers what that band did with Copper Blue and Beaster.  Silver Age brings back the Bob Mould of old – melodic punk-pop with doses of introspection.  There’s no sin in sounding like one’s self [AC/DC and Motðrhead did it all the time], unless you’re John Fogerty.  He isn’t reliving past glories; he’s just doing what he does best.  The volume is turned up, but the rage, while still there, is toned down ["I'm never too old to contain my rage”].  He need not have worried that his music sounded like it was played by an “old man”.  On the contrary, the young ones could still learn something from Bob Mould.  He took one lyrical shot at the American Idol generation.  Star Machine was his way of telling those folks that if they don’t like being pop stars, then they should stop being pop stars.  Mould once described Silver Age as a “party record.  Who am I to argue?  It sounds like he's enjoying himself for once.

He followed Silver Age with Beauty & Ruin [2014] and Patch the Sky [2016].  He told Rolling Stone in 2014 “I’ve realized that one of my strengths as a songwriter is writing very catchy songs with very down lyrics.  People enjoy it. I enjoy it. It seems to be one of those things that I do regularly and do well. That kind of contrast is important to me.”  So it is with Beauty & Ruin.  The album has four main themes - loss, reflection, acceptance and the future.  Not long after the release of Silver Age, his father died.  He had a complicated relationship with his father.  He was an alcoholic who beat Bob’s mother and older brother, and who also played mind games with his sister.  For some reason, Bob didn’t get such treatment from the abusive father, but he refused to accept his son’s homosexuality.  He entered a “rough patch” following his father’s death.  Again, he told Rolling Stone –

I’m getting to that point in my life, where I’ve been losing people and people are getting really sick around me.  It’s weird. It can be a downer, but it can also be very enlightening. I’m very grateful that I’m in a line of work where now that I’ve stayed around long enough, sadly I get this perspective. It’s not a popular one in rock music.

Patch the Sky mines similar lyrical territory.  Between the release of Beauty & Ruin and Patch the Sky, Mould’s mother died.  On top of that, Mould found himself single again.  With the turmoil of those events, Mould locked himself away for six months to write the songs for Patch the Sky.  As he told one interviewer not too long ago:

I wrote alone for six months. I love people, but I needed my solitude. The search for my own truth kept me alive. These songs are my salvation.  I’m being very upfront. I’ve had a lot of loss in the last handful of years, and contrasting that with all the critical acclaim and this sort of resurgence – I mean, best of times in public, worst of times in private. As opposed to trying to hide the content of the record, it’s like, ‘Here. It’s a dark record. I went through a dark period. I felt very isolated. I took six months away from the excitement of life to sit and contemplate the meaning of the rest of my life, and here it is.’  That’s the good news with Patch the Sky, is that instead of weighing down these dark emotions with dark tempos and dark melodies, to have that contrast and be aware of it as I’m writing the music and words – that was nice that it unfolded that way.

That has been Bob Mould’s stock-in-trade for many years – catchy songs with not-so-catchy lyrics.  He tends to bury his voice in the mix, so even if the words are a bummer, listening to the songs doesn’t make you want to slit your wrists.  Beneath the catchy pop songs, there is depth if you want to take the time to find it.  He tends to write about himself, and usually that “self” is less than happy.  It’s not his way to hold a mirror to the world and rail against hypocrisy – that’s what we have Roger Waters for.  If you want “angry Bob Mould”, go listen to Hüsker Dü.  Pete Townshend once said that rock and roll won’t solve your problems, but it will let you dance all over them.  Bob Mould’s music is his way of dancing on his problems.  Although his works are postcards from the dark side of emotion, it’s still nice to hear from an old friend.  He’s a good rhythm guitarist [and a very fast one when the mood strikes], an “OK” singer, and [in his words] a simple lyricist.  But what is evident is that he’s in his comfort zone with two bandmates who he wants to work as long as they want to work with him.  Who needs the Foo Fighters when you have Bob Mould?

Bob Mould’s next album, Sunshine Rock, will be available February 9th, the title track of which has already been released digitally.  The album cover will be familiar to most folks over the age of 50 – it’s the Orange and Yellow swirl of the 45s put out by Capitol Records.  If I was going to guess what this album will sound like, I’ll go out on a limb and say “Pet Sounds with guitars”, but it’s happy.  It sounds like more of what you get with Silver Age, Beauty & Ruin, and Patch the Sky [with an orchestral twist], and hopefully the rest of the album follows that vein.  Bob Mould is in a late-career resurgence, and I highly recommend checking out what he’s done since that resurgence began in 2012.

No comments:

Post a Comment