Bob Mould – Beauty & Ruin – Album Review

Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” Who knows, maybe he had Bob Mould in mind when he penned this. Since the dissolution of his pioneering 80s post-hardcore/alt rock band Husker Du, Mould has certainly turned in some of the irreverent chaos that made much of his output so vital and rollicking. Post-Husker, he created some stellar alt rock with Sugar, ill advisedly dabbled with electronica on 2002’s Modulate, handed in some awesome and average solo records before eventually experiencing a relative return to form with his most recent solo album, 2012’s Silver Age. However, this much lauded return to form never sat perfectly at ease. The music was solid and entertaining but at the same time somewhat perfunctory and pedestrian. It seemed that Mould had nestled comfortably and contentedly into that ever common mire of the elder rock statesman. He had become somewhat workmanlike.

However, just a cursory glance at the cover artwork of new album Beauty & Ruin suggests there is something different about this record. A grizzled, middle aged Mould stares defiantly out at the viewer. His visage is super imposed over an image of a younger pensive smoking  Mould staring at the ground. An exploration or bridging between the present and the past is mooted. This reflection on what has gone before is undoubtedly influenced by the untimely death of Mould’s father in October 2012. He told Stereogum, “My dad passed away, not unexpectedly, but still, never a fun thing. And that triggered ideas about loss, about health and loss.” In his efforts to explore what essentially amounts to an existential crisis, Mould has created a record that whittles proceedings down to the most potent aspects of his long and varied career.

This focus leads to an album that is imbued with an intrinsic propulsion as it careens through a succession of styles like Mould has all of a sudden figured it what it exactly is that he does best. Lead single, “I Don’t Know You Anymore”, sees Mould in fully fledged post grunge mode. It’s loose, melodically breezy and extremely 90s. Reminiscent of “The Descent” from Silver Age or “Changes” from Sugar’s Copper Blue, it’s the kind of song Dave Grohl wishes he could still write. In a nod to his most critically acclaimed solo album Workbook, during “Forgiveness” and “Let The Beauty Be” Mould brings a more reflective acoustic mood. Similarly to “See A Little Light” from that album, these songs are imbued with an acceptance that some things cannot be changed. “Little Glass Pill”, “Kid With Crooked Face” and “Hey Mr. Grey” hark back to the latter day incarnation of Husker Du characterised by brevity, velocity and melody. On these tracks, Mould sounds as invigorated and vitalised as he ever has. Mould’s rhythm section of Jason Narducy on bass and John Wurster, of Superchunk, on drums permeate these breathless bursts of sound with a youthful performance that belies their age.

In an interview with Rolling Stone Mould said, “I’ve realized that one of my strengths as a songwriter is writing very catchy songs with very down lyrics”, and it is this incarnation of Mould that he focuses on for the duration of Beauty & Ruin. There is no space for experimentation here. The electronic noodlings of Modulate and the relative soft rock of District Line and Life And Times are discarded entirely in favour of what could be judged to be Mould’s most famous modus operandi. Some may decree this to be Mould playing to the gallery, but when the results are this strong it is difficult to argue with Mould’s motives.  His inner chaos is alive and well.

Beauty & Ruin is out on June 3rd via Merge Records.