The other day I read a little interview in GQ with Bob Mould. Mould is an artist I’ve long tried and wanted to like in his various guises but never quite can. My interest in Mould starts with the strong sense that he’s a good egg and a real music lover. In the 5 minutes I spoke to him about favorite punk records of our youth after a Husker Du show years ago, he was a good egg. I actually passed out for a second, leaning against the stage during his show. My friend—a close, personal friend and Townsman who shall not go named—and I were wasted on an experimental combo of canned vanilla weight loss shakes and vodka. It was a tasty combination, but not one worth revisiting. I liked Husker Du that night as much as I could have imagined. I especially liked the vibe they gave off. It was like watching some local bands in our scene at the time, good eggs onstage and off, each with a couple of really good songs and fun people watching them from the floor to occupy my time during the boring numbers. Although seeing Husker Du live helped me like them more than my experiences skipping over 10 songs on each album for the 2 good ones, the combination of Mould’s horrible open-chords on a distorted Flying V tone and his bellowing Gordon Lightfoot-style singing voice were limiting factors in my long-term enjoyment.
The hardest trick to pull off in rock and roll is the dreaded “return to form,” that abstract idea that a veteran artist can somehow, after a few decades, reclaim both the sound and the energy of their earlier work. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been told that a new Pearl Jam album is “their best album since [insert favorite old Pearl Jam album here].” I can’t tell you how excited I was when Metallica released Death Magnetic and it sounded way more like old Metallica than new Metallica. Being an artist is a real bitch because fans always want you to go backward. They want you to recapture a moment of discovery in their lives that can’t truly ever be recaptured. And you’re supposed to do all of it without sounding repetitive. No wonder so many musicians are prone to smashing their instruments. – Drew Magary, from his intro to the GQ interview.
A few years later I bought Mould’s first solo album, Woodshedding, or something like that. It featured energetic, acoustic guitar-driven songs with cellos and the backstory of Mould wanting to move forward and develop a meaningful, direct approach to songwriting like that of his new hero, Richard Thompson. Remember that time in the mid-’80s, when Thompson suddenly became a guiding light for slowly maturing punks looking for a way to move forward? I was one of those punks; I sought guidance from Thompson, buying almost all his works leading up to the stuff Mitchell Froom started producing once he earned his long-overdue critical acclaim. Mould’s Woodshop album was pretty good, more in tune with Thompson’s hardwood folk-rock albums prior to Froom’s addition of a cheapening polyurethane finish. With the crappy Flying V out of the picture, the lone stumbling block to my fully embracing that album was Mould’s voice. He still sounded like a punk rock Lightfoot to me.
It was cool that Mould was moving forward. I was too. Next he put out an album called Black Sheets of Rain, or something like that. It sounded like he’d been digging out his Neil Young records, like so many of us were doing at the time. I know I was. The middle-aged Young was showing us slowly maturing punks how to move forward by forever being true to ourselves. It was a good lesson. The best songs on Mould’s second solo album sounded like Neil Young fronting Badfinger. Despite moving another notch closer to being able to say I finally, actually liked the music of Bob Mould, I eventually sold both of his solo albums. His voice made me think he was yelling at me all the time. It was like hearing my Dad yell at my Mom when I was a little kid.
Some of my friends bought the Sugar albums. They sounded pretty good, too, like The Buzzcocks fronted by an angry father. I kept meaning to tape the best bits of those records (this is before I had many digital capabilities). I wish I had so I would have had a better point of reference for all the Mould records that have been released since and that I have never heard.
For the most part it seems Mould has been moving forward. He even put out a few techno/”electronic” records and did stints as a club DJ under the moniker Mouldy Ouldie, or was it DJ Du? I’ve read a dozen interviews with Mould over the years, and in each one he comes off as an interesting, open guy. That’s what I’m looking for above almost everything else in life: interesting, open people.
Word of Mould’s new tour in support of his “return to form” album, Silver Age, and the 20th anniversary celebration of Sugar’s Copper Blue, must have been a thrill for his fans. No matter how much intelligent, mature music fans want their heroes to move forward, a part of us—the aging, increasingly creaky parts of us—long for a return to form. By all accounts Mould’s aggressive tour has been a return to form. I haven’t seen clips from it, but perhaps this means he’s also back to playing cowboy chords on that distorted Flying V. I believe he even plays some Husker Du songs, but I don’t know if he’s one of those proud, embittered band leaders who’s been too proud to play the songs that first made anyone care about him. Didn’t Paul Weller, for instance, go years refusing to play any of the songs he wrote for The Jam? It’s cool that Mould has gotten all that he’s been getting out of moving forward so that he’s now comfortable returning to form. Cool for him, I’m sure, and cool for his fans.
As a fan, I had a similar rewarding experience of seeing Elvis Costello & The AttractionsImposters return to form at Philadelphia’s Tower Theater. Welcome home, Brother Elvis (and welcome home, younger version of myself, whose had to trudge forward through the years)! On the other hand, earlier this year I saw Nick Lowe in his present-day, long-having-moved forward state, and I was pleased as punch. At this point in his career, I actually have no interest in seeing Nick Lowe “return to form.”
Is there an artist you’ve loved seeing “return to form,” if even for one show or album? Is there an artist you long to see return to form? Is there an artist you regret having seen attempt to return to form or hope doesn’t try to do so?