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New Day Rising

Postpunk Vet Bob Mould Makes a Virtue of Survival

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 4/10/2002

Kurt Cobain was a wonderful musician, but the combination of a best-selling record, a tabloid marriage, and suicide inflated his reputation out of proportion. If you scrape away the celebrity distractions that Cobain hated and compare him to Bob Mould on purely musical terms, Mould is the more important artist. Everything that Cobain did musically, Mould did earlier, better, and longer. And Mould is still out there doing it, with a new album, Modulate, and tour this spring.

The whole "grunge" sound--that irresistible combination of pop melodies and punk chords thickened into clouds of guitar noise--was invented not in Cobain's Seattle, but several years earlier by SST Records bands such as Mould's Hüsker Dü. And grunge found its richest expression not on the albums of Nirvana but on records such as Hüsker Dü's New Day Rising and Copper Blue by Mould's subsequent band, Sugar. Never before or since have grunge tunes been so catchy, grunge guitars so bristling, grunge rhythms so inexorable.In the early days of punk, bands such as the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, the Clash, and X used staccato chords as an echo of the vocals, an amplification of the anger and swagger in the lyrics. Mould's genius was to turn this formula inside out. By curdling the guitar sound until it was more oppressive than buoyant, he made the guitars represent the stifling reality his lyrics depicted--the guitars became the antagonist rather than the ally of his voice and thus allowed a richer drama to be acted out within the song. And because Mould had a knack for pop hooks, the conflict between his tuneful singing and those grinding guitars was dramatic indeed. That led to his other innovation: breaking down rock lyrics into sentence fragments as short and choppy as the musical phrases (an innovation shared with fellow SST act the Minutemen). These shattered shards of language not only reflected how his peers talked but also allowed Mould to imply far more than he actually said.

Cobain exploited these developments brilliantly on Nirvana's 1991 breakthrough album Nevermind, the precedents for which could be found on Hüsker Dü's mid-'80s work. (Nirvana's big advance within the postpunk formula was allowing producer Butch Vig to make Hüsker Dü-ish songs sound like a Boston record.) The last five Dü albums--1984's Zen Arcade, 1985's New Day Rising, 1985's Flip Your Wig, 1986's Candy Apple Grey, and 1987's Warehouse: Songs and Stories--measure up to any run of albums to come out of the whole postpunk/grunge/hardcore/alt-rock/whatever movement. Mould's anguished, blistering compositions were matched stride for stride by the songs penned by drummer Grant Hart, who was able to capture a childlike appreciation for UFOs, sleds, and a white dress, all within the pell-mell push of punk. Hart was the perfect ying to Mould's bleak yang, and their dialogue made the Dü albums fascinating.

But in 1988, Hart's heroin habit, Mould's frustrations, and their road manager's suicide broke up the band. Hart still hasn't matched his '80s achievements. And neither did Mould, initially. He made the unfortunate decision to work with session musicians on two underwhelming solo albums--1989's Workbook and 1990's Black Sheets of Rain--but he righted himself by forming Sugar, a trio with bassist David Barbe and drummer Malcolm Travis.

Sugar provided Mould with his best-selling album (1992's Copper Blue), his darkest (1993's Beaster), and his most optimistic (1994's File Under: Easy Listening). The latter disc solved the seemingly impossible challenge of making positive love songs credible in a punk context. Mould did it by writing the strongest melodies of his career, not just for his vocals but also for the noisy guitar riffs that suggested the anxiety and anticipation of being very close to true love but not quite there yet.

When Sugar broke up amicably the following year, Mould maintained his momentum with 1996's Bob Mould, which captured romance's heartbroken flip side, and 1998's The Last Dog and Pony Show, Mould's farewell to rock-band touring. Then he disappeared from the music scene for four years, which included a seven-month stint writing scenarios for televised World Championship Wrestling bouts.

But now he's returned, more active than ever. Mould formed his own label, Granary Music. He joined forces with United Musicians, Aimee Mann and Michael Penn's artist-run distributor. And he has announced that he'll release three albums in 2002: the half-electronic, half-rock Modulate, out now; the all-electronic Long Playing Grooves, due in June; and the acoustic Body of Songs, due in September.

Mould's interest in electronic music first surfaced in "Megamanic" on Pony Show, but he sounds much more comfortable with synths, samples, and drum programs on Modulate. On first listen, the album sounds completely alien to anything he has done before, with the fuzzy guitars replaced by sleek bleeps and blips. But the third or fourth time through, you realize that Mould is using these layered loops the same way he once used his layered guitars--as a thickened noise that represents an external world where his melodic vocals are struggling to find a place. That the outside world is now represented by cold, impersonal computers rather than hot, hostile guitars reflects both the changes in American society and Mould's own aging.

It works surprisingly well. "Semper Fi" is a song about preserving a long-term relationship from gossip and temptations. With dizzying samples swirling about him, Mould cries out to a wavering lover, "Some pure adrenaline might bring me back again, back to you," with an urgency that supports the lyric. "Lost Zoloft" uses backward-running tape to create the tension that underlies a confrontation with a gay-bashing right-winger, whom Mould taunts, "Objects in the mirror may be much closer than they appear."

Modulate is divided into two distinct halves like a vinyl LP. After six electronic tracks, the familiar guitars re-emerge in the second half. The hook-laden "Slay/Sway" is a musical autobiography that evokes both the beginning of the punk era ("In a dead-end town where there's nothing around you but an empty garage full of nothing to do, it was fun to have a few friends over") and its demise ("It was clear who was taking over the world/ it wasn't going to be me"). "The Receipt" opens with a shimmering rainfall of synth notes until a pumping guitar riff blows it away and ushers in a vitriolic kiss-off to an old friend who has turned into "some deadbeat dad who lives at home." By contrast, the slow-grinding guitar chord of "Hornery" lingers on and on until it segues into the chattering synth of "Comeonstrong." On this response to an overly aggressive lover, Mould's marvelous voice is able to suggest both the anger and the plea in the lyrics.

What's most impressive about Mould is that he is still active and exploring new ways to express his gift for tension-and-release. After all, Cobain only made two studio albums of consequence in his entire career, while Mould has yielded 10. Of all the gifts that go into making great music, the ability to stay alive and stay productive should not be underestimated.

Bob Mould performs at the 9:30 Club April 17.

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