My Life as Scored by Bob Mould

mould coverBob Mould, Patch the Sky (Merge, 2016)

It goes without saying that, generally speaking, I make no pretense of objectivity, at least when it comes to matters of art. This is true as a general principle, but it applies with particular force when the matter under consideration is the work of Bob Mould. On his new record, Patch the Sky, Mould produces and excellent exemplar of his stock in trade: expansive guitar melodies carried along on a dense, metallic swirl. This is what I want from Bob Mould, although strangely he hasn’t always given it to me.

I can still recall riding home from my local record store (Hot Poop in Walla Walla, Washington) in the summer of 1983 with a copy of Hüsker Dü’s first album, Everything Falls Apart in a bag slung over the handlebars of my ten speed. I remember thinking how different it was from most of the punk records that I was listening to in those days. The guitar sounded thick, not tinny as on so many early punk releases, and Bob Mould’s voice had a note of melancholy that I found gripping. I listened to it again and again, especially “Gravity,” the breakdown section of which still makes the hair rise on the back of my neck.

Metal Circus, released in the fall of that year, moved their game forward considerably. The recording was better, the songs more compact and aggressive. The lyrics had developed too, addressing topics like alcoholism, rape, and political violence at a level above the standard punk polemics, but in a way that was accessible, at least to my adolescent way of thinking.

The next summer the band released Zen Arcade, one of the most complex, inventive, and challenging records that the punk rock underground ever produced. At the time I was not exactly sure what to make of it. It had songs like “Something That I Learned Today” and “Pink Turns to Blue” that seemed to build on the melodic direction of their earlier work. But it also had things like the Hare Krishna chant and “Reoccuring Dreams” that made me think that perhaps they’d taken a little bit too much acid while in the studio (which may not have been too far from the truth).

I got New Day Rising while I was away at camp in Minnesota, about six months after it came out. It was much more coherent and direct than its predecessor. Clearly, Hüsker Dü were moving in a more pop direction, and this caused a lot of debate within the punk scene as to whether that was ok. I was fine with it. Their sound was developing, and the fact of the matter was that they continued to write songs that I found compelling. Well, when I say “they” I really mean Bob Mould. I was just never a fan of Grant Hart’s music. It seemed too reminiscent of the pop music of the 1960s, and to me that was one of the things against which the new music was rebelling. Bob Mould’s songs were expansive and melodic without looking backward, and that was what kept me listening.

If New Day Rising provided the anthemic backdrop to the summer of 1985, that winter’s soundtrack was Flip Your Wig. Hüsker Dü’s music was changing, their lyrics becoming more introspective. I listened to “Green Eyes” a lot (the rare Grant Hart song that I really liked) because it reminded me of a girl I had a crush on. But the song that really stuck with me was “Games,” where Bob Mould struggled to come to terms with what it meant to be prominent, and the meaning of fame more generally. I had never really thought about that before. I always assumed that being famous would be great, and that anybody who complained about it must be some sort of jerk. It had never occurred to me that it might be troubling to have so many strangers care about your opinion, probably since in those days very few people gave a crap about mine. [Not that it’s much different today, I just care about it less…]

Hüsker Dü and I parted ways in 1986. I moved to Nottingham and got very involved in the European crust/d-beat scene. But I did know that the shift to Warner Bros. had caused a lot of turbulence among the band’s existing fan base. As I recall, Bob Mould actually wrote a piece in the January 1986 edition of Maximum Rock n Roll trying to explain and justify the jump to all the people who had followed them in the underground scene. The people that I was hanging around with in those days, mostly anarchists, squatter, hunt saboteurs, and the like, were completely dismissive of this. I too felt kind of betrayed, but I was also suspicious about what the demands of major label production would do to the band’s sound.

When I got back I ran into by best friend Chris, who had loved the band as I did. I asked him about their most recent release, Candy Apple Grey.

“It sucks,” he said, “don’t bother.” And I didn’t. I probably didn’t listen to Candy Apple Grey, or its successor, the diffuse and directionless Warehouse: Songs and Stories, for 15 years. When I finally did I didn’t really like either one. Candy Apple Grey just sounds empty to me, and whether that’s a matter of the producers trying to mute Mould‘s overwhelming guitar tones, or my own residual feelings of betrayal (or some combination of the two) I still don’t have enough personal distance to say. The songs on Warehouse (with one or two exceptions) have always sounded to me like outtakes from the sessions for the previous album.

Nor did I listen to Bob Mould’s first solo release, Workbook, at least not more than a couple of times. At that point I was still morally opposed to solo releases by people who’d been in bands that I loved. To me it smacked of self-indulgence. I did buy (and am still one of the few people to really enjoy) Black Sheets of Rain, after I read a review of it in Rolling Stone that began:

If you thought Bob Mould’s angst-ridden solo debut, Workbook, was a blast of heavy weather, you’ll need a steel umbrella to withstand the torrential distortion and gale-force rage of Black Sheets of Rain. This album contains none of Workbook‘s pensive acoustic eloquence or diligent guitar orchestration. Black Sheets of Rain is nothing more, or less, than a long, loud howl of pain – blinding anger, unremitting loveache, debilitating loneliness – broadcast from power-trio hell.

I think that record only sold about 7000 copies (I bought two). The recording quality was remarkably bad. It sounded like Mould was in one room and the two guys from the Golden Palominos were in another, and they just hadn’t bothered to integrate the tracks. Still, that record spoke (and speaks) to me in a way that Workbook never did. I went and saw him on tour that year. The show was actually a lot better than the record, at least in terms of how it sounded. For an encore he came out alone with his acoustic guitar and played some Hüsker Dü songs (I don’t remember which ones but it was great). Then the rest of the band came back on stage and they played one of the best versions of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” that I’ve ever heard in my life.

Mould’s next project, Sugar, started out strong for me. Copper Blue was a fabulous record. It was a bit of a change for Mould in the sense that his guitar was slightly more muted and better integrated with the other musicians. It still had the same compelling melodies that had defined his music from the outset and the lyrics were heartfelt and, in the case of “The Slim” unbearably moving. Having said all that, I really didn’t get into either Beaster or File under Easy Listening. It’s not that they were bad records, I just didn’t like the songs.

Then I sort of lost touch again. This was in part due to the fact that the mainline of my tastes runs to things harder and faster. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has read few of my posts that I spend my time listening to Skit System, and Disfear, and Martyrdöd and that I generally don’t have a lot of time for things melodic and/or mainstream. I listening to Bob Mould (1996) and The Last Dog and Pony Show (1998) maybe once or twice apiece, but they just didn’t grab me and I consigned Bob Mould to the ranks of artists from whose work my tastes had moved on. This was a sad thing for me. Every now and then I would spin up Metal Circus or  New Day Rising and wish that there was something that tapped whatever it was that I loved about those records for me again. But it didn’t happen.

Then last year I was up late at night and I happened to be watching David Letterman. This in itself was real serendipity, since I haven’t watched a whole episode of that in the better part of a decade. But I was watching and I happened to catch Bob Mould do a couple of songs from what was at that point his most recent album (Beauty and Ruin, 2014). And they were burning. Apparently they were performed at such volume that dust shook down from the rafters. In that moment I thought, “Ok, I’ve gotten enough joy from this guy’s music that I’ll give whatever he puts out at least a chance.

So now we come to his latest release, Patch the Sky. Like his preceding two records (Silver Age and Beauty and Ruin), it’s out on Merge Records, and his association with this label seems to have come about at the same time as the move away from the sort of navel-gazy period that he went through in the oughties. I’ve now gone back and listened to most of those records, and I don’t feel like I missed that much. Patch the Sky, however, rocks quite as hard as his other Merge releases (i.e. hard).

The opening cut on Patch the Sky is the kind of Sugar-esque “Voices in My Head,” pleasing but not mindblowing. But the then Patch finds its stride with the over the top, overdriven melodicism of “The End of Things” (which could perhaps be the theme song for my life right now). “Hold On” is a minor key rocker that wouldn’t have been out of place on Black Sheets of Rain, but is better recorded and mixed than any of the cuts on that record.

“You Say You” features another one of those broad, exuberant melodies that Mould had been churning out for the best part of four decades. “Losing Sleep” pulls things back to a more contemplative place, but maintains the fullness of the albums overall sonic profile with some well-considered chordal additions from bassist Jason Narducy. And perhaps this is moment to say that the players that Mould is now working with are, for my money, the best that he has worked with since the 1980s. Narducey and drummer Jon Wurster seem to have a visceral understanding of what Mould is trying to accomplish and fill out the sound without stepping on it.

“Pray for Rain” is another that evinces Sugar pretty strongly, joyfully spinning through series of dense and beautiful sonic landscapes at foot-tapping tempo. “Lucifer and God” slows things down again but with a spiraling melodic overlay that gives the song a lush, almost intoxicating groove. “Daddy’s Favorite” seriously sounds like it could have been recorded by Ozzy Osbourne, with a wealth of sorts of metallic guitar overlays that give Mould‘s compositions their more hard rocking dimension. “Hands Are Tied” is a straight ahead melodic punk tune that wouldn’t have been out of place on New Day Rising or Flip Your Wig.

An so it goes. The songs change focus and tempo, but the overall content is consistent and the quality is consistently high. Patch the Sky is more than just a suitable companion to Silver Age and Beauty and Ruin. It is, to my ear at least, the place that those discs were going. Bob Mould seems to have rediscovered the muscular melodies that have driven his music since the 1980s, and his latest return to form gives one hope that the well of creativity from which he has for so long drawn has not yet run try.

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