By the start of the new millennium, it looked as though Bob Mould had all but physically put his storied alt-rock past out to pasture. His 2002 record Modulate found him delving heavily into electronic music, while Blowoff, his live DJ set performed alongside Richard Morel, brought his progression toward dance music around full circle. Even when he has picked up the guitar in recent years, records such as Life and Times and District Line hit much closer to Workbook than Copper Blue. He might lay claim to a legacy most working musicians would kill for, but no artist wants to be trapped in a box, even one as packed with accolades and goodwill as Mould’s. The past is the past. This is now.
Yet for all of his mostly successful deviations from the alternative signposts he had a large hand in creating, Bob Mould will always be largely remembered and defined as the guy from HÃ¼sker DÃ¼ and Sugar, two bands whose shadows loom too large to ever fully escape. He has always been leery about looking back, but Silver Age, Mould’s latest solo effort and first for Merge Records, suggests that his reticence may be softening with age. Front to back, top to bottom, the record is the most charged Mould has sounded since those fruitful Sugar days, and at 52 he sounds as comfortable in his iconic alt-rock skin as ever.
It’s hard to get right at the root of what’s behind Mould’s change of heart, but credit is due in some part to his current backing band of bassist Jason Narducy and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster. The seasoned indie vets have been working alongside Mould for a few years now, but Silver Age is the first time the set-up has unlocked the ferocious energy of his spirited guitar rock of yesteryear. Beyond that, one also gets a sense that the timing was right for the singer to find his way back to his punchier output. This year marks Copper Blue‘s 20th anniversary, and Mould is currently in the throws of a tour geared as much around celebrating that album as the new record. It’s hard to deny the power of nostalgia, even for someone as seemingly calloused to it as Mould.
Whatever the reason, Silver Age just plain rocks: easy, simple, no frills. From the opening strum on “Star Machine” through to the very end, the record follows one gloriously amped-up course without so much as a detour. Constituting ten tracks, each clocking in at three to four minutes a piece, it’s a fairly brisk trip, and there’s no better compliment to pay the record than to say that by the end of album closer “First Time Joy”, the demand to take another lap is palpable.
The high points here are many, starting with the title track, which peels the paint off the walls with the kind of spit-and-vinegar guitar rock Mould has kept in storage in recent years. The layered, more singer/songwriter-y affectations of albums like District Line are nowhere to be found here. That lean approach serves the record well throughout. “The Descent”, the record’s first single, is almost a note-for-note Sugar blueprint, and that’s a true compliment. Other tracks (such as “Steam of Hercules” and “Angels Rearrange”) follow the HÃ¼sker DÃ¼ formula for success, complete with massive drums, crashing cymbals, and driving guitar, all underneath Mould’s treble-y vocal delivery.
Even if the record hangs on a little too tight to the past at times, Mould delivers here with vigorous force. More than another album of tastefully done guitar pop, Silver Age is the sound of an artist learning to come to grips with his legacy. At long last, Mould is embracing the past he’s long tried to let go of, and rarely has he sounded this good. By ripping off the Band-Aid and addressing the past head on, Mould has made his best record in over a decade. Considering his catalog, it’s unlikely his trip down memory lane will be a lengthy visit, but it sure was nice of him to drop in.
Essential Tracks: “Silver Age”, “The Descent”, and “Steam of Hercules”