Bob Mould’s Righteous Thunder
The problem with growing up punk is that is usually leads to one of three outcomes: dying young; mellowing with age; or engaging in the embarrassing nostalgic tango that sees men in their 50s trying to fit into the pants and the poses of their youth.
Bob Mould has found a fourth way. He has put his head down and continued with his life’s work, always moving forward without abandoning his past.
It helps that Mould, now 55, never tried to cultivate an image. From the moment he first caught the world’s attention 35 years ago, Bob Mould has simply rolled out of bed, pulled on his jeans, plugged in his guitar and extracted the sheets of sound that helped to define the age of alternative rock. You can’t fall out of fashion if you were never in style.
In jazz, it’s common to speak of Miles Davis’s two great quintets. Now it’s time to acknowledge Bob Mould’s three great trios. Though he hasn’t always worked in that context, being backed by only bass and drums suits him. Supportive but uncluttered, the two-piece rhythm section provides the space necessary for a one-man wall of sound to operate.
It began, of course, in the 1980s with Hüsker Dü, one of the most celebrated and influential bands of the time, where Mould’s songs combined punk aggression with disarming melodies that sat just below the righteous thunder.
In the 1990s, Mould formed Sugar, a band with broader natural appeal than Hüsker Dü, one that cultivated a sheen that made it more palatable to radio that the earlier group’s untamed sound ever had been.
Still, Sugar could rock as forcefully as any band on the planet. I clearly remember hearing “Gee Angel” for the first time on Lawrence’s dearly departed KLZR and feeling like I had been pinned to the wall.
Mould disbanded Sugar two decades ago, and he abandoned the idea of the power trio. He made dance music for a while. He worked entirely on his own and with various collaborators. He spun records as a club DJ in Washington, D.C. He went to work in the world of professional wrestling, writing scripts and working behind the scenes. He wrote an autobiography.
And then he formed a band. Though Mould records under his own name now, bassist Jason Narducy and drummer (and writer/comedian/social media savant) Jon Wurster have proven essential to the sound of his three most recent albums — ”Silver Age” (2012); “Beauty & Ruin” (2014); and “Patch the Sky,” released in March of this year — which have invigorated Mould’s career. Powerful and nimble, the trio navigates a middle ground between Hüsker Dü’s chaotic melodicism and Sugar’s more polished approach.
More than three decades into his career, Mould has lost none of his intensity or inventiveness. He remains a unique force as a guitarist, filling his songs with their ragged, raging structures, plus incisive leads. As a singer, his voice — a perfect rock instrument that seems naturally electrified (think John Lennon, Ozzy Osbourne or Liam Gallagher) — has lost none of its power. And as a songwriter, he continues to pair melody and volume as well as anyone of his era. Put one of these last three albums on in the car and it’s all but impossible to keep from turning them up.
“Silver Age” was a jolt out of the blue. It’s an avalanche of songs, one after another careening around corners at breakneck speeds, each better than the one before it. Together, they achieve momentum and take flight. This is the lean, hard, dry Bob Mould guitar sound, devoid of any bloat or excess.
“Beauty & Ruin” continued in much the same vein, though it was a darker, more complicated effort, one infused with the big questions. Mould’s father died after the release of “Silver Age,” and he responded with a record that addressed issues of mortality and which, in places, replaced the previous album’s hairpin tunefulness with a slow, hard grind that mimics life in its more difficult moments. Still, there are moments when Mould’s grief finds expression in songs that manage to strike a hopeful note.
Have you ever really wanted to die?
Can you carry all the weight of your life?
Time after time, your brain exploding
Don’t worry, you’ll be all right
The new album, “Patch the Sky,” threads the needle between its two predecessors. Mould suffered another loss after the release of “Beauty & Ruin” when his mother passed. Unsurprisingly, he returns to the lyrical themes related to mortality and regret, but the music soars in a way that the songs on the previous album often did not. Mould and his band produce a dozen bracing, ear-catching performance, none more immediately gripping than “The End of Things,” which features a whiplash-inducing guitar riff that Pearl Jam would kill for.
Set lists from Mould’s recent shows reveal that he is fully dedicated to the power trio format, with songs from all three of his great bands forming the heart of the show. That, it seems, is a good idea.