Sunday, May 3, 2009

Life and Times - Bob Mould

Life and Times

Bob Mould
Anti- Records.

SCQ Rating: 62%

District Line, Mould’s 2008 effort, fared better on SCQ than it probably should have. Here’s a songwriter who, fronting Husker Du, helped bring American hardcore to the public eye, formed the successful pop band Sugar and intermittently released fine solo records, but I only know this because of Wikipedia. That’s the truth when it comes to a subject as broad and multifaceted as music; you can’t be aware of everything and Mould was a case in point. As such, the man’s brilliance hit me like a twenty-year-strong freight train, making District Line one of SCQ’s most beloved records of the year. Fourteen months later, Mould is back with his second Anti- release, Life and Times; an apparent bookend to his first solo album, Workbook, as well as a precursor to his currently in-the-works memoirs. Such build-up and decades-old press references seem unfounded, as this latest collection acts as neither sequel nor supplementary package to Mould’s life story. In fact, Life and Times thematically picks up right where District Line left off, dealing with straining connections and aging hearts.

While Mould still offers reflective narratives accompanied by hard-hitting melodies, the true distinction here is Mould’s return to direct rock dynamics and foregoing his electronic trappings. Sure, the decision is at least aesthetically similar to his rustic Workbook but Mould is now twenty years older and by subtracting his protooled atmospherics, Mould is inadvertently showcasing how stationary his compositions have become. The snarl remains on rockers like ‘Spiraling Down’ and ‘Argos’ but both lack bite; as committed and consistent as Mould’s vocals are, these are paint-by-number examples of radio-rock, brash and harmless. ‘City Lights (Days Go By)’ would’ve been forgivable had Mould written it for, I don’t know, Sting, but it sounds too middle-aged for a man who, despite his own middle-age, keeps an authentic conviction half his age. Worse yet is lead single ‘I’m Sorry, Baby, But You Can’t Stand in my Light Anymore’, which clashes its awkward title against some of the most familiar chord progressions you’ve ever heard.

Despite Life and Times being a frequently shrug-worthy struggle, Mould manages a few key tracks to keep the album afloat. The opening title track is almost too good, as a vocoder-less vocal ruminates about the return of an ex while patient snare-hits usher a full-band blast as Mould asks aloud:

“What the fuck, what kicked up all this dust?/
You’re taking me back to the places I left behind/
the old life and times.”

It’s a blistering start and, as detailed in the last paragraph, a tragic tease of promise. Likewise, ‘The Breach’ displays Mould’s unique delivery next to muscular rock arrangements and ‘Bad Blood Better’ is the latest in his tradition of including one super-morose ‘relationship = death’ song; both tracks are great. The best is saved for last, however, as ‘Lifetime’ (not to be confused with ‘Life and Times’… sensing a theme here?) kinda-well-sorta breaks Mould’s promise by imbedding heaps of digital noise, treated keys and xylophone to a beautifully nostalgic song of love’s failures. ‘Lifetime’ doesn’t sonically fit into this album and it’s all the better for it, proving (right after ‘I’m Sorry, Baby…’ ‘s lowpoint) that Mould can still write embarrassingly great songs.

Had I heard the majority of Mould’s solo discography, I’d have a better idea of where Life and Times fits qualitatively (chances are, it would probably land square in the middle of the spectrum). A year after I first celebrated District Line, however, this release seems purposefully undercooked and bewilderingly rushed. Perhaps it’s all part of Life and Times’ would-be statement, that Mould, after years of lite-electronic tinkering, remains an impressive rock musician. It’s an assertion he only needed to prove to himself, I think, and here’s hoping the Husker Du alumni’s next project is burden-free, finding him looking forward instead of backward.

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