Bob Mould had me at the fogged glasses. Watching the former Hüsker Dü frontman, now in his early fifties, thrash across a KEXP Bumbershoot stage last year with a young man’s fervor, partially blinded by the sweat droplets cascading down his now-bald head and collecting on his lenses, I remember thinking to myself, Here’s a guy who’s figured out how to age about as gracefully as life permits. Really, that’s what makes Mould’s 2012 downer, Silver Age, surprisingly uplifting. Whether channeling youth’s innate yearning for escape or lamenting the inevitable letdowns of adulthood, Mould charges ahead full throttle and finally finds his own reason for enduring. We age, we gray, and yes, we have little say in most matters, but if nothing else, Silver Age reminds us that we can still choose to thrash around while life happens to us. We at least have that much control.
In many ways, Beauty & Ruin — which features a young Mould on the cover, eyes lowered, dragging on a cigarette, adjacent to a faded image of his present-day self staring austerely ahead — continues that theme of enduring through life’s cyclical gut punches. As Mould explains, the record documents a year-long stretch beginning with the death of his father, arranged in four three-song packets that represent the movement from loss and reflection to acceptance and the future. Publicly revealing your artistic intentions can potentially backfire, but here it allows listeners to fully appreciate Beauty & Ruin, a record that lacks some of the verve and bite of Silver Age but still fits nicely within Mould’s canon.
Being privy to Mould’s vision clarifies a lot of his decisions here. For instance, we know why he chose to open the record with the sluggish, lumbering “Low Season” instead of a shot of adrenaline. The cold, lonely sound of a hammer striking metal in the distance dissolves into what feels like a pair of broad shoulders trudging beneath their burden across a bleak, barren, and frozen landscape — the track’s heft and lines like “Pour the poison out/ Drink the pain away/ Chances that I wasted in my unforgiving days” conveying the weight of loss. Likewise, we also understand why winter transforms into summer, warm and bright, by the record’s concluding cuts, “Let the Beauty Be” and “Fix It”, the former a “Kumbaya”-like strum-along and the latter a bouncing blitz urging, “Fix it, fix it/ Fill it up/ Time to fill your heart with love.” If it felt like Mould escaped hopelessness through a pinhole on Silver Age, here, by comparison, the skies have opened up just for him.
Some artists cross this type of spectrum over the course of a long career; Mould pulls it off in about 35 minutes on Beauty & Ruin (which contains two more tracks, but is still briefer than Silver Age). The album delivers best when locked in like a man with a long story to tell and no breath to waste. Out of the dissolution of “Low Season” emerges the fierce tirade “Little Glass Pill”, Mould pinballing, “I try, I try/ Enough, enough, enough/ I’m losing my mind” like a man whose festering grief has finally caused him to snap. “Don’t look back,” repeats Mould on the epiphanic and more melodic “Fire in the City”, a moment in which a troubled man realizes what once consumed him can finally be left behind to smolder. And optimistic blastoff “Tomorrow Morning” predictably launches Mould into the future, with longtime bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster swirling around him dependably and energetically, like electrons around their nucleus.
Beauty & Ruin deftly negotiates Mould’s intended arc, but that doesn’t mean the record is without disappointments. The aforementioned “Low Season” and “Let the Beauty Be” may bookend Mould’s emotional journey, but neither beg to be played again in the same way as pop punk single “I Don’t Know You Anymore”, or even the self-mocking mini-thrasher “Hey Mr. Grey”. Likewise, “Nemeses Are Laughing”, while a necessary shade between winter’s pallor and summer’s golden tones, merely plods along, serving the narrative more than the listener. Despite these few snags, Mould’s snapshots give us a vivid glimpse into a year in his life, both the beauty and the ruin, which Mould claims are often the same thing. Somehow, that thought takes me back to him thrashing blindly around a stage, and then it sort of makes sense.
Essential Tracks: “Tomorrow Morning”, “Little Glass Pill”, and “Fire in the City”