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What becomes a legend least? For my money, it’s always been the much ballyhooed “return to form”—a term that’s been trotted out so many times in reference to former Hüsker Dü great Bob Mould that any regular reader of the rock press must wonder if the guy ever really left his form in the first place.
To wit: After a disappointing singer-songwritery solo debut dubbed Workbook back in the late ’80s, Mould bounced back with 1990’s Black Sheets of Rain, a difficult-listening album that featured gobs of the full-frontal guitar sound the Malone, N.Y., native (and current D.C. resident) borrowed from Mission of Burma and perfected with the Hüskers. Rock scribes, naturally, ate it up, with Rolling Stone’s David Fricke even likening the album to “the machine-gun melancholy that distinguished Mould’s half of the Hüsker Dü songbook.” Seemingly encouraged by hyphenated adjectives, Mould convened a post-Rain return-to-form band: the Hüskers-aping Sugar.
Sugar faded to black back in the mid-’90s, of course, and Mould purportedly put his fuzzed-out past behind him for good in 1998 with the bitterly titled solo turn The Last Dog and Pony Show. Then came the ’00s, house music, and the startlingly digified—and widely panned—Modulate. That’s the one the honchos at Yep Roc, Mould’s new record label, are most worried about, the one that wasn’t form-fitting. “At its core,” says the press kit for his latest, “Body of Song is a return to the blend of punk and pop that Mould fashioned in the 1980s with Hüsker Dü and in the 1990s with Sugar.” In other words: Don’t worry—you don’t have to dance to it.
That’s at least half-right. Set-opener “Circles” could be a vintage Sugar track, a swirling, vaguely psychedelic foot-stomper whose melody conjures both the Beatles and Buzzcocks, two of Mould’s longtime influences. “Underneath Days” is pretty riff-happy, too, a lock-step, on-the-one rocker that features one of Mould’s patented primal-scream vocal attacks slathered on top of an instantly memorable chorus—a desperate-sounding, seesawing thing that no one in his right mind would describe as “singsong.”
“Best Thing” and “Missing You” also traffic in the jet-engine guitar sound that, for a while there in the early ’80s, made Hüsker Dü one of the best alt-rock bands on an alt-rock-saturated planet. Both tracks clock in at a mere 2:50, and both come equipped with the kind of body-bruising chord changes that Mould first discovered a talent for more than two decades ago.
All of that said, Body of Song also recalls, yes, Modulate, which found everyone’s favorite thrash-pop mastermind getting all Pro Tools on your ass, pumping up his mordant rockers with sequencers and synths and, even more shockingly, employing a vocal effect that recalled the one Cher used on the apparently deathless “Believe.” Now personally, I loved that album—loved it in these very pages, in fact. Not so most of my critical brethren and sistren, who tended to view it as a necessary creative step that maybe should’ve been taken in private. The drubbing it received, one suspects, was at least partly responsible for Mould’s strategic retreat from a plan to issue two other Modulate-minded long-players in 2002.
Fortunately, that retreat was merely temporary: A number of tracks recorded for those discs made the Body of Song cut. And critics be damned, so does the Cher vocal trick, most effectively on “(Shine Your) Light Love Hope,” a song that recalls nothing so much as the Madchester-mad late ’80s—a time when Mould himself, you’ll remember, was getting more folky than baggy. But maybe that’s a good thing: The happiness with which Mould discovers that dance and rock can play nicely together is so convincing that you’ll even forgive him the song’s rave-era message of blissed-out unity. Happy Mondays, suffice it to say, wouldn’t have laughed a bit.
That goes triple for “Paralyzed,” a discofied rocktronica ditty that sounds a lot like what New Order has been shooting for on its last two albums, and “Always Tomorrow,” a trancy, bass-heavy number that brushes up against the warped, postpunk dub of Metal Box– era Public Image Ltd. “Days of Rain,” by contrast, plugs into the laser-gun melancholy of the Notwist, the German laptop outfit that’s currently in heavy rotation at the Mould household, according to his Web site. Interpol and Sigur Rós are listed as being on the turntable, too, and it shows. Body of Song isn’t as expansive as signature works by either group, but it does share some of their preoccupations with texture and dynamics.
Good for Mould, I say. Familiar sonic pleasures aside, returns to form tend to be drags, particularly when they’re issued by bona fide living legends. And though Mould may be drawing inspiration from younger and more esoteric bands these days, he’s hardly turned into some kind of 20-something wannabe. For starters, his nasally, range-constrained warble has aged nicely and continues to make everything Mould does uniquely his own. And Mould has a talent for unhappily-ever-after lyrics that’s unrivaled, except possibly by Stephin Merritt. “Days of Rain,” for example, is a plea to be let down easy, hard, whatever way will destroy hope most effectively. “If I could see your hand/I bet you’d win,” Mould sings. “So make me understand/Before I fall in love with you again.”
Even “Light Love Hope” is saved from cliché, by the fact that its narrator is a lost soul rather than a saved one: “Beam it from your eyes at night/I can’t find my way.” The yearning for connection turns darker in “Gauze of Friendship,” a half-acoustic/half-electric number that acknowledges the futility of romance with utter simplicity: “You try to give yourself away/And hope he never leaves.” The song’s quieter passages are also a gentle reminder that Mould has picked up an unamplified guitar more than once in his career. Indeed, the guy has been mixing up his aural attack since way back in his Hüskers days. New Day Rising’s “Celebrated Summer”—hands down the best tune in Mould’s overall body of song—featured acoustic guitar, as did weepier keepers such as “Hardly Getting Over It” and “Too Far Down,” both from 1986’s still-thrilling Candy Apple Grey.
This time out, “High Fidelity” captures the somber-folky aspect of Mould’s sound best. It’s a reflective strumfest that threatens repeatedly to turn into “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” though Mould echoes a different Dylan song lyrically: “As the times they change/I get left behind.” To which the only proper response is: Not hardly. Wide-ranging and ambitious, Body of Song is the kind of return to form that actually matters—one that makes the most of an artist’s old strengths while simultaneously pointing him in intriguing new directions.CP