First Look: New Bob Mould Album

Silver Age, out this
week on Merge, is not a case of the proverbial and clichéd “return to form” –
rather, it’s Mould reclaiming his old style in the service of his songs, which
remain as sonically power and emotionally pungent as ever.

 

By Michael Toland

 

Bob Mould has never been about one sound. The predominance
of acoustic guitars and cello on his first solo LP Workbook, the electronic experimentation of “Megamanic” and modulate., the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink
expansiveness of Body of Song
Mould, like any creative artist, uses whatever tools he thinks will best get
the job done. But he will forever be identified with the sound of Hüsker Dü, which
defined melodic power trio punk in a way that still resonates today. Never mind
that tracks based on acoustic guitars appeared as far back as 1984’s Zen Arcade, or that keyboards colored
tracks on the band’s later records. “Makes No Sense at All” set Mould’s sound
in stone for far too many of his fans.

 

So when he formed Sugar in the early ‘90s, many of his
supporters felt it was a “return to form,” a backhanded compliment in that it
praised the punkified power pop sound of the new trio, yet dismissed the immediately
preceding work that led up to it. Truth be told, Sugar sounded like the Dü only
insamuch as it was Mould singing and playing in a trio and the tunes emphasized
hooks. But Mould’s better developed sense of melody, willingness to expand the
basic sound with some oddly proggy synthesizers and a more mature outlook gave
Sugar its own distinctive feel. Powerful yet graceful, Mould’s Sugar work –
particularly on the debut album Copper
Blue
– felt less like a capitulation to fan desire than a culmination of
everything toward which he had been working.

 

Given Mould’s creative restlessness, it was a surprise when
he decided to celebrate Sugar’s 20th anniversary by not only
reissuing the band’s work, but by hitting the road in the power trio
formulation he’d largely abandoned. Even more surprisingly, Mould was already
working in that style, taking his rhythm section (bassist Jason Narducy and
drummer Jon Wurster, no doubt living the dream after years in the
Hüsker-worshipping Superchunk) into the studio to make a stripped-down power
trio record:  Silver Age.

 

From the first notes of “Star Machine,” the opening cut,
it’s clear that Mould isn’t so much settling for his older style as reclaiming
it. This kind of chunky chord work has been beaten into the ground in the hands
of the alternarock hordes, but coming from the frets of Mould’s trusty
Stratocaster it sounds fresh, clean and new. The soaring single “The Descent”
is even better, making the best use of a classic pop/punk chord progression in
eons. “Fugue State” also rages against the dying of
the light, the stomping, catchy melody beating back the darkness creeping into
the libretto. “Steam of Hercules” slows down the tempo to really bring down the
hammer, Wurster punishing his kit as much as Mould pounds the chords into the
ground.

 


The Descent by Bobmouldmusic

 

 

Silver Age isn’t
only a shift in sound from the more eclectic work of Mould’s last few records,
but a shift in mood as well. Somber Bob mostly takes a break, replaced by angry
Bob, defiant Bob – even jubilant Bob. “Star Machine” takes to task so-called
artists who get into the game to satisfy their egos instead of creating lasting
work, while the title track recognizes the adult/child dichotomy of a life in
rock & roll and throws it right in everybody’s face. “Round the City Square”
explores familiar territory – a crumbling relationship – but energizes the
discussion with a streak of defiance, as if at least one half of the couple in
question is going fight disintegration with all their strength. “First Time
Joy” salutes the impetus of new love with a wistful melody and a tempered vocal
that builds in intensity as it moves. The LP’s key track, though, is “Keep
Believing,” a celebration of the power of music to change one’s life that blows
past cliché on its way to ecstasy. Writing a song that revels in rock
magnificence is extremely difficult – with “Keep Believing,” Mould succeeds on the
same level of the best work of his hero Pete Townshend.

 

A fairly large contingent of Mould’s supporters, in both the
fan and critical communities, will no doubt throw that hackneyed “return to
form” phrase at Silver Age. That does
the rest of his large catalog a disservice by implying that his power trio work
is inherently superior to the rest of his oeuvre.
But Mould is not giving in to pressure here. Instead he’s reclaiming a sonic
brew that he’s really, really good at boiling, and reminding us of that fact
with amps set on stun. Ultimately, Mould’s albums rise and fall on the strength
and consistency of the songs, no matter what road he travels. This record is
stuffed to the brim with great tunes and would be a killer no matter what style
in which he indulged.

 

Silver Age is
another peak in a career full of them, and it’s due to the quality of the
material Mould uses to construct the suit, rather than the classic cut of the
design.

 

 


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