Sep 152012

Return to Forever.

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.

Return to Mould. (Photo from GQ.)

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?


  20 Responses to “Return to Form”

  1. bostonhistorian

    I think he played “I Apologize” and “Celebrated Summer” from New Day Rising (my favorite Husker Du album–I saw them live a few months after it was released) here in Boston and kicked ass in general according to several friends. I never listened to Gordon Lightfoot so I don’t have your issues. As a long time Madness fan I can say their last album was one of the best things they’ve ever done but it wasn’t that similar to their previous work so not really a return to form. Most of the bands I care about are long gone so there is no form to return to….

  2. cliff sovinsanity

    The one band I’ve loved seeing “return to form” is Mission Of Burma. Although it could be argued that they just picked up where they left off in the mid 80’s. Starting with their “reunion” album OnOffOn they’ve kept the same spit and venom of their youth.
    The one band I wish “would return to form” is X, although I know this will never happen. The music really was of an era. Even if they dug up Ray Manzarek (wherever he is) I know it wouldn’t be the same.

  3. trigmogigmo

    Not answering the question yet, but I caught Mould’s performance on Letterman last week and it was pretty good. Nice straightforward 3-piece tuneful noisy rock. I’ll have to pick up the new album. I missed the Husker Du train the first time around and when I’ve seen/heard their stuff it doesn’t grab me, but I am a big fan of Mould’s post-HD work.
    I LIKE!

  4. 2000 Man

    I don’t think X can come back like that. I don’t think John Doe writes like that anymore, and that’s been okay by me. His newer stuff has been swell.

    Peter Case has been terrific of late. Wig! is a swell album and his collection of stuff he’s had laying around for years or less, Case Files, is pretty terrific, too.

    I thought that 2003 Buzzcocks album was cool, too. I totally didn’t expect to like that as much as I do.

    But I’m not giving Bob Dylan any props. He just keeps making the same stuff over and over again so far as I can tell. Not that it’s bad, but you certainly don’t need to “collect ’em all!”

  5. I don’t believe hardly any rocker or rock group can ever sound the same simply because of aging. Sorry for being a downer. I think a rock singer should instead of as Bruce would say going for the “Glory Days” evolve into a new chapter in one’s performing. I think a rocker worth their musical salt to coin a phrase will evolve and not go back to how they were. Examples Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Delbert McClinton, many others.

  6. I was very glad when I saw the original Gang Of Four return to form. It was every good thing I’d ever read about that original band as a live unit… + time. They blew me away.

  7. Every Rolling Stones album since Exile with particular emphasis on Tattoo You and, ummmm, that album from about 5 or 6 years ago.

  8. cliff sovinsanity

    I waited a few days allowing Funoka to dispatch a Mats related comment to this post. Alas, I will make an attempt.

    Paul Westerberg needs to return and make the single great solo album we’ve been waiting for ever since the demise of The Replacements. You can’t tell me the genius has not been all flushed away. He’s gotta do it.
    As far as a “reunion tour” with Tommy and Chris, I would be on board. But, a “reunion album” would fall into the category of “hope doesn’t try to do so”.

  9. Westerberg made a great album called 49:00 a couple of years ago that was available on Amazon for a few days, and then, because he still likes to do crazy and unauthorized covers, got pulled. I am sure the “Born To Be Wild” cover got him in hot water, because that’s a big cash cow. He sings about past girlfriends, the death of his dad, and other topics that come to mind as you hit the latter part of middle age.

    A buddy of mine lives near him in Minneapolis and sees him at Little League baseball and hockey games — just hanging with the dads and moms.

    Maybe when his kid goes to college, he’ll crank it up again. Let’s hope his kid goes to an expensive college, so he needs some cash.

  10. misterioso

    Sorry, what was the question again?

  11. alexmagic

    Where does AC/DC’s “avert fans longing for a return to form by never bothering to change in the first place” ethos fit into things? Are there any other long-running bands who have, for better or worse, traveled on such a straight line?

  12. George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers and The Ramones did a good job staying on message.

  13. alexmagic

    I kinda wish there was a Thorogood prog album almost as much as that Seger new wave album we wished for a year or so ago.

  14. Paul got together with Tommy and Chris to record two songs for their Best Of compilation Who Do I Think I Was? a few years ago. Unfortunately, they were jokey, toss-off songs that Westerberg can do in his sleep. And I think his glib comment was that the record company didn’t pay them much so that was all they were getting.

    Funny line about Paul’s kids going to an expensive college. What are the royalties on those animated bear movies, anyway?

  15. John Fogerty telegraphed it with his Revival record a few years ago. It was a pretty good return to form for a guy who had been sued in the past for sounding too much like himself.

  16. Oh! Oh! Two “return to form” albums out today — Aimee Mann’s Charmers and Dwight Yoakam’s “3 Pears” — I feel like it’s 1994, man!

  17. Have you heard the new Aimee Mann album, funoka? For me she’s on that “Please don’t let me buy ____” list that Al was compiling recently. After I’m With Stupid, my favorite album of whatever year it was released, I excitedly bought her next few albums, through the one with the boxing metaphors. Jeez, each one was worse than the previous. Most of them were about as exciting as a morphine drip. I must tread with extreme caution before buying another album by her.

  18. BigSteve

    If I’m not mistaken, Bob Mould claims that it was only after recording Workbook that people told him he should check out this guy Richard Thompson. He went on to record with him (on the Golden Palominos album Drunk with Passion) and contribute a song (Turning of the Tide) to the very nice Thompson tribute album (Beat the Retreat). And I think they’re now ‘friends’ in the way rock musicians are ‘friends’ with people they hardly ever see or spend time with.

    I’m a big Mould fan. I can hear where Mod is coming from about the voice, but I think it’s one of his biggest assets. I like the new album fine, but I sort of feel like it’s a step backwards. I think he may be playing fast&loud while he still can, before geezerhood fully overtakes him (he’ll turn 52 next month). But I really liked when he started integrating electronic sounds into his guitar music. His album called Body of Song is really good, and I think the album he made with his DJ partner Rich Morel under the name Blowoff is really a lost classic. I also recommend Morel’s albums (Death of the Paperboy and Lucky Strike) for a very idiosyncratic mix of rock and glam and house.

  19. Nothing got me really excited streaming it a couple of times on MOG.

    She’s doing a lot retreading — a couple of songs sound like “Save Me.”

  20. Body of Song is great . . . I like some of The District Line too.

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