Leave it to former Hüsker Dü rocker Bob Mould to ruin the party. On “The End of Things”, he compares a birthday party to an act of “gradual decay,” a fitting comparison for a musician who has built his sound in the crevices between the bright and the bleak. Patch the Sky is the third part in an unofficial trilogy of albums that began with 2012’s Silver Age and continued with 2014’s Beauty & Ruin. The run has marked a bit of a resurgence for Mould, who in the same time frame has also released a memoir and had his music championed by the likes of Dave Grohl. Still, on Mould’s latest offering, there is more sorrow than joy.
Opening track “Voices in My Head” — which also serves as the album’s lead single — is anthemic and uplifting, pairing rousing guitars with a lyrical tone at contrast with the music. In the notes accompanying the record, Mould explains that Patch the Sky is his darkest album, but also “the catchiest one.” It’s true. Even as Mould sings of hallucinations and final conversations, there is an undeniable sonic exuberance shining through. Mould seems fully aware of the contrast, embracing it with lyrics like “in this sun you cannot breathe” on “Losing Sleep” and “I keep searching, hoping, waiting for the sun that always shines so bright on everyone” on closer “Monument”. Patch the Sky is, in essence, the battles of a dark man born in a bright world, a place where the cobwebs of the past seem to constantly obstruct his passage to the welcoming arms of the future.
Not every song on the album follows this train. “Lucifer and God” is a fairly generic exploration of pining for a “come to Jesus” moment that is destined to never arrive. While the song is hardly cliché, it somehow fails as too universal for an album clearly examining the personal. On “You Say You”, the powerful backbeat tries to maintain the poignancy of frayed relationships, but the generic lyrical content doesn’t ring true like the specifics elsewhere.
Mould is at his best when he goes for the extreme, the macabre in a stranglehold with the melodic. That’s the case with “Hold On”, an existential power ballad about the tried and true punk thematic of surviving. The song embodies angst hitting middle age, built on a bruising guitar line and emphatic percussion from long-time collaborator Jon Wurster (Superchunk, Mountain Goats).
Given Mould’s mastery for ebullient sorrow, it comes as no surprise that the album highlight is “Losing Sleep”. Adopting a slightly more laid-back sound, Mould employs the additional sparkle of chimes laid over fuzzy guitar to perfectly recreate the pensive solitude of a solo drive up California’s Highway 5. Anyone who’s taken the spin from San Francisco to Los Angeles (or vice versa) will know the absence of intriguing scenery and abundance of Arby’s and strip malls leaves one with little more than their thoughts and the undulating heat.
On “Daddy’s Favorite”, Mould touches on themes of loss tied to the death of his father in late 2012. In the time between Beauty & Ruin and Patch the Sky, Mould also lost his mother, an unfortunate reality that has offered him plenty of fodder for his ruminations. “I try to be happy every day, but my black heart it burns,” he sings on “Monuments”, the record’s final track. It’s difficult not to believe him. In this latest chapter of his career, Mould has turned his music into a personal reflecting pool, a watery blank canvas into which he expertly casts the stones of his regrets and longings. Just don’t plan on booking your birthday party there.
Essential Tracks: “Hold On”, “Voices in My Head”, and “Losing Sleep”