Bob Mould: The Sun Shines Through the ApocalypsePhoto courtesy of Merge Records (from left: Jason Narducy, Bob Mould and Jon Wurster) Music Features Bob Mould
The title track to Bob Mould’s new album, Sunshine Rock, opens with his signature guitar sound: that brisk succession of dense, beyond-triad rhythm chords that overlap with long-decay reverb and accumulate into a storm of sound that’s easily heard as a storm of feeling. They may be delivered with percussive force, but threading through them is always a melodic line that reinforces the emotion.
It was the sound of 1980s hardcore, which grew out of punk and soon morphed into grunge, a sound that Mould more or less invented for his first trio Hüsker Dü and continued to refine for Sugar and his solo recordings. It was one of the great rhythm-guitar innovations of the rock ’n’ roll era, right up there with those of Chuck Berry, Jimmy Nolen, Keith Richards, Freddie Stone, Roger McGuinn, Nile Rodgers and Johnny Ramone.
“Because I started in a three-piece,” Mould says, “I had to learn how to fill out the sound by myself, that Pete Townsend thing of having to play lead and rhythm at the same time, like Richard Thompson. It’s an art form that not a lot of people use today.”
In the popular imagination, Mould’s guitar attack is associated with the anger and angst of punk-rock—and not without reason. Punk was the perfect vehicle for venting youthful discontent, and bands from the Sex Pistols to Hüsker Dü to Nirvana did just that. So it’s a surprise when the lyrics to “Sunshine Rock” come into focus. “I’ll bring you with me into the sunshine rock,” Mould cries over his roiling guitar. “We watch the fireworks and stay so late we miss the train.” The major-chord melody is infectious, and in the song’s second half, the strings of the Prague TV Orchestra swell from underneath to make the buzzing guitar harmonies even denser.
“That guitar sound is my standard delivery model,” Mould points out. “Not to shortchange the Prague Orchestra, but that guitar approach is my signature; it defines the record. But it’s not like I’ve never used that sound with upbeat songs before. Think of Flip your Wig and F.U.E.L.”
Indeed Hüsker Dü’s Flip your Wig and Sugar’s File Under Easy Listening proved that the fast/hard ethos of punk could be applied to happiness as effectively as unhappiness. Even many of the Ramones’ early songs boasted a gleeful brattiness. Mould’s guitar sound is agnostic; it will intensify any feeling, whether positive or negative.
Listen to a Bob Mould solo show from 1996:
“I started writing this album at the end of 2016, over in Berlin,” he says. “It was pretty dark and wintery—the darkest, most wintery thing I’ve ever experienced. It was worse than even Minnesota. Yeah, Minnesota is really cold and gets a lot of snow, but the ground is white so you get a lot of reflected sun; it’s often very bright outside. In Berlin, it’s as if the clouds are hanging ten feet over your head, and it’s dark for months. I missed the sunshine.”
After spending most of the ’90s in New York City and most of the ’00s in Washington, D.C., Mould moved to San Francisco in 2009. Since 2016, he’s been splitting his time between Frisco and Berlin. He has always maintained that his environment influences his songwriting, and that was especially true for this album. “It’s a long way from California to Berlin, so filled with melancholia” he sings on the new album. “Winter came and paralyzed me…. I’m like a polar bear crawling through the tundra.”
“It was in the midst of all that darkness that ‘Sunshine Rock’ tumbled out during a writing session in 2017,” he continues. “When it fell into my lap, I said, ‘Maybe that would be a good place to write from, a more optimistic point of view. Maybe that could be the basis of the next record.’ You know my previous work; I’m not always so optimistic, so I had to constantly remind myself to stick to the agenda.”
Optimism is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Hüsker Dü. The trio’s breakthrough album, 1984’s Zen Arcade, was a blistering sonic assault that laid open the failings of both the older generation (“Broken Home, Broken Heart”) and Mould’s own generation (“The Biggest Lie”).
“I was 19 or 20, I was young,” Mould told me in 2005. “I was drinking and doing speed; I was blessed with a high testosterone level. Being in a punk-rock band like Hüsker Dü, the surroundings fueled that edge that I was living on personally. We all want to be liked, and if we can do something that makes us liked, we tend to continue to do it. There wasn’t much trouble in growing up eventually. Empathy makes you a little less self-centered, makes you see how we all have to co-exist.”
Nestled among Hüsker Dü’s screeds were surprising flashes of compassion. Mould was able to write a song called “I Apologize,” even if it was a bit grudging, as well as the frank admission of uncertainty, “I Don’t Know for Sure.” After Hüsker Dü’s eight-year run ended, after two solo albums and after an LP and EP with his new trio Sugar, Mould released F.U.E.L., his masterpiece in this writer’s estimation. Songs such as “Your Favorite Thing” and “Gift” were confessions of love that were boosted, not contradicted, by rampaging guitar, bass and drums behind them. Sunshine Rock, if not the equal of F.U.E.L., is a worthy sequel.
Listen to Bob Mould’s Daytrotter session from 2009:
“What sparked this album,” he explains, “was the experience of living in a new city, where everything is brand new, where every day is a new discovery. Being in a new place where you don’t know the language that well or the customs that well, floating through it without totally understanding, leads to a childlike wonder, which can be very exciting.”
The hopeful innocence of the young is captured most obviously on the album’s only acoustic-guitar track, “Camp Sunshine,” which begins, “Greetings from the camp where every day is fun; the weather’s warm, and everyone is cool.” Over the midtempo, double-tracked guitar, Mould compares the punk-rock community he grew up in to a summer camp for kids. “I think about the kids we used to see,” he sings wistfully. “Some get sick and pass away; others find a different place to play. Believe me, there’s nowhere I’d rather stay.”
That upbeat attitude and meteorological metaphor carries over into “Sunny Love Song.” With the help of “my guitar, some weed, imagination,” the narrator is able to lift the clouds of the Berlin winter and the Trump Era. The thick buzz of guitar, which embodied those clouds early in the song, are repurposed as the singer’s breath that can blow those clouds away. “If I write a sunny love song every day,” Mould sings, “I can shine so bright on you.”
He can get away with a couplet like that only because the music behind the words is so raw and raucous. The mix of growling guitar and romantic lyrics can be found on the string-buoyed “I Fought” and a cover of the 1968 song “Send Me a Postcard,” originally recorded by the Dutch psychedelic band Shocking Blue.
“I pulled out ‘Send Me a Postcard,’ and the guys said, ‘Why does this sound familiar?’” Mould explains. “I said, ‘You know the 30 minutes of music I program before each show? This song was 15 minutes in, so you heard it every night.’ It’s a cool song, a weird European take on West Coast psychedelic-rock, and the spirit of this album—from the cover to the sounds on the tracks—comes from that time period. It was much more optimistic than the song that originally resided in the #11 spot and that better fit the overall tenor of the album.”
It’s not all sunshine. On the remarkable “Final Years,” the 58-year-old Mould addresses the ultimate bummer: reaching the age when there are fewer years ahead of you than behind you. “It’s the slowing down,” he sings, “foot caressing pavement with caution, not like before when we ran with abandon.” A striking, descending guitar melody introduces the midtempo meditation on time and loss. When he asks the question, “What do we cherish in the final years?” the strings play a variation on the guitar figure, expanding the sense of diminishing options.
In the documentary video about the new album, a balding, bespectacled, salt-and-pepper-bearded Mould muses on looming mortality. Gesturing to the studio behind him, he says, “This is where you get together with the people you love and you trust; you build those moments that stay for all of time. As I go on my journey in this process and get closer to the end, the stakes get higher. You need really cherish the things you do still have, like this. You may not get another chance to do this.”
The middle of the album’s sequence examines the less sunny side of life. “Irrational Poison,” “Sin King” and “Lost Faith” are as bleak as their titles suggest. But Mould insists that the album needed the overcast numbers as much as the sunny songs.
“When I write songs like ‘The Final Years’ and ‘Lost Faith,’ which came at the end of the writing cycle,” he says over the phone, “how can I deny the strength of those songs? That powerful chorus of ‘Lost Faith,’ about climbing the mountain and then it’s hard to find your way back home, how can I say no to that? Those two colors certainly sit inside the spectrum of this record.”
The two colors come together on the album’s majestic closing track, “Western Sunset,” where the sunshine fades away, but in a burst of glory. The lyrics describe how difficult it is, having enjoyed “Saturday/Sunday fun” with one’s friends, to get up to Monday morning’s alarm clock, even if the wake-up music is Daft Punk’s “One More Time.”
“Music floats in the sky,” Mould sings, and his catchy pop-vocal line does seem to float above the power trio’s crashing waves of sound. Playing a counterpoint melody are the strings, which add an extra push to the tumbling momentum. The music embodies the hopefulness behind such lyrics as “In a world insane, after all this madness passes, we’ll rebuild our world fantastic.”
“The strings were a late entry,” Mould notes. “As I write, I make demos at home with varying degrees of complexity. When I’m considering alternate melodies, I’ll add placeholders on keyboards. Two weeks before we started recording, I became cognizant that the songs were strong, but they needed more melody. And I realized that the themes I wanted were already in the placeholders. And I heard them as strings. So I started writing string arrangements.”
Mould tries to write every day. Sometimes that’s not possible, what with travel and other commitments, but it’s a goal that he holds onto. Even if he doesn’t get something done that day, the consideration of different ideas will often emerge from his subconscious later.
“If you don’t try to write every day, how will you ever get anything?” he asks. “A lot of times, I’ll work for an hour or two, unless it’s really amazing. When that happens, you chase it till you run it down, even if it takes 12 hours. If it’s not amazing but I remember it, I’ll work on it again the next day. If I don’t remember it, it’s probably not worth bothering with.”
Some songs he works on for years. “Western Sunset,” for example, was recorded for two previous albums but never quite jelled. Finally Mould realized that the verses were taking too long to get to the chorus and bridge—the real meat of the song. So he got rid of the verses, and the whole song snapped into focus. Sometimes the most productive part of writing is the erasing.
Once he has the songs in hand, he brings them to his band. This is his fourth consecutive album since 2012 with bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster. Mould has known Narducy since 1994 when the Chicago duo Jason & Alison opened shows for Mould (Alison Chesley plays cello on “Western Sunset” and helped Mould with the new album’s string charts). When Jason & Alison became the rock band Verbow, Mould produced their 1997 debut. Wurster was a substitute when Mould lost a drummer in the middle of a tour in 2005.
“It’s real easy playing with these guys,” Mould says. “They know my body of work, so there’s not a lot of explaining necessary. They can hear the threads; they can anticipate when I’m going to push here or pull back there. We all grew up with a similar language, the language of really energetic pop music: like the Who and Cheap Trick. We were all in punk bands. Everyone likes the Buzzcocks; everyone likes Big Star; everyone likes the Beatles. When I bring in something made with one of those threads, we all know what colors to add. I trust these guys completely; I welcome their opinions.”
And it’s no accident that he’s once again leading a trio, as he did with Hüsker Dü and Sugar. “When it’s time to stand and deliver, the three-piece is a real natural fit for me. When you go see a three-piece there’s no confusion about where the sounds are coming from. If we want to take a song far out and then snap it back to the top of the chorus, nothing’s more reliable than a three-piece.”