Bob Mould, Hüsker Dü, And Sugar Albums From Worst To Best
Over the course of his three-decade run as one of the preeminent geniuses in rock and roll, Bob Mould has shared a great deal of himself through his work, while somehow remaining something of a distant figure. Perhaps it is the inherent modesty of Midwestern remove. Maybe it is the unmodulated croak of his drill-sergeant singing style, an effective instrument to be sure, but one that tends not to vary much between soaring rock numbers and downbeat acoustic laments. Maybe it is the wall of ominous-sounding feedback and squalling guitar that frequently armors his live appearances. From his roles as the hardcore troubadour that led the legendary Hüsker Dü, to the brains behind the revelatory power-pop of Sugar, to his occasionally muted but always intriguing work as a solo artist, the fact of Mould’s greatness has never been much in question. But the exact nature of his greatness feels less clearly defined than certain other of his contemporaries. This makes exploring his catalog all the more fascinating.
Consider for a moment the thriving strangeness of the Minneapolis music scene that Hüsker Dü emerged from in 1981: Prince was already the established local genius, sufficiently weird and undeniably great enough to be embraced by the mainstream and counterculture alike. For every understandable reason, Prince brought light and heat from the music industry to this Midwestern outpost, a scrutiny that could not help but shine the spotlight on other locals. That meant additional attention on the production duo of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, but also meant extra awareness for the burgeoning punk-rock scene, which consisted of at least two legendary greats: Hüsker Dü and the Replacements.
In many ways Hüsker Dü and the Replacements were a version of the tortoise and the hare, with the ironic caveat that no one actually crossed the finish line. The Mats were locally celebrated from the gate, an anointed band by local scene mavens, quickly signed on the basis of a demo to the preeminent Minneapolis indie label Twin/Tone. That same label passed over the nascent Hüsker Dü, who lacked not only the immediacy of the Replacements’ soundcraft, but also the undeniable glamour of their personal appearance. While Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson seemed for all the world like junior varsity members of the Faces, Hüsker Dü looked like a ragged St. Paul bowling team.
The Hüskers bristled at their own lack of hometown acceptance, and responded by defiantly taking their act on the road. Their efforts eventually attracted the attention and dedication of the legendary punk-rock label SST, who released four records before the band signed with Warners in 1987. During this period the band’s skills grew geometrically, starting with the Quadrophenia-like rock opera Zen Arcade and culminating with Flip Your Wig, one of the best-realized power-pop albums of the 1980s. Their transformation over time, from hardcore missionaries to tough but tuneful popsmiths, remains one of the most fascinating in rock and roll history. By the time Hüsker Dü followed the Replacements to the major leagues at Warner Bros., they had developed a unique and accessible sound that belied their avant instincts and spoke to their most commercial impulses without ever compromising their principles. As a live act, years on the road had shaped them into titans — the interplay between Mould’s massively loud and potent guitar work and drummer Grant Hart’s frenetic flailing suggesting nothing so much as the Who circa Live At Leeds — a pop band with more than a trace of ’70s-era metal in their DNA. The major- label releases were good, but not particularly mainstream-sounding or successful, and long-simmering creative and personal tensions between Mould and Grant Hart soon became insurmountable. (For the record, bassist Greg Norton was a crucial linchpin to the power trio, and seems by all accounts to have been well liked by all involved.) Hüsker Dü finally called it quits in 1988, amidst sundry recriminations, and Mould set out on his own.
In Hüsker Dü, Mould had shared songwriting duties with Hart, and stylistic differences in their writing made for an increasingly diffuse listening experience. The two solo records that Mould released between the end of Hüsker Dü and the formation of his next great trio, Sugar, were the first window into his approach as a sole creative engine. They were remarkably, extraordinarily bipolar. 1989’s Workbook was a contemplative, largely acoustic affair — surprisingly light in mood and featuring the spry, upbeat hit “See A Little Light.” This was the closest anyone had ever come to Mould appearing playful on a record, and the results were startlingly enjoyable. Just in case anyone thought that the end of Hüsker Dü had permanently unleashed a kinder, gentler songwriter … well, just play 1991’s follow-up Black Sheets Of Rain. It is essentially one solid hour of unyielding, impenetrable despair. The title is about the most cheerful thing about it.
Black Sheets had predictably failed to build upon the commercial promise of Workbook and Mould’s career seemed at a precarious impasse. Dropped from his deal with Virgin and seemingly stuck in the unenviable position of being an out-to-pasture elder statesman for the brand of “alternative rock” that was suddenly dominating the airwaves, Mould pivoted back to band mode — forming Sugar with bassist David Barbe and drummer Malcolm Travis. Thus commenced one of punk rock’s few great second acts: To the surprise of practically everyone, Sugar would proceed in the next years to release some of the best and most popular music of Mould’s career, as well as some of the greatest of the era overall. At the time, it seemed practically impossible that Mould was somehow expanding upon and improving the palate that had made Hüsker Dü so great. Twenty years later the terrific set of recent reissues by Merge Records makes plain that this was anything but illusory. Add Mould’s name to John Lennon, Bernard Sumner, Ian MacKaye, and a few others on the very short list of those who have been integral bulwarks to more than one legendary rock band. (It’s worth noting here that Mould is playing Sugar’s 1992 debut, Copper Blue, in its entirety today at Fun Fun Fun Fest. The fact that this is one of the sprawling festivals legitimate highlights is evidence of Sugar’s massive and lasting value; the fact that many fans are frustrated that such a set won’t include tunes from Mould’s wonderful new album, Silver Age, is evidence of the man’s continuing greatness.)
After Sugar disbanded in 1995, Mould kept busy, releasing an ever more eclectic series of solo records that dabbled in stripped-down folk, dance music, and electronica. Other albums like The Last Dog And Pony Show and District Line hewed closer to the old formula, but as Mould has aged, his interests have diversified intriguingly — he even spent a short period writing scripts for professional wrestling in the late 1990s. Most recently, Mould released The Silver Age, a delightfully catchy and accomplished power pop record that manages to wed the tuneful bombast of late Sugar with the upbeat introspection of Workbook. It is one of his finest albums in years, and maybe, just maybe, the beginning of another run of Bob Mould classics.
So here we examine the catalog of one of the most important and unwieldy figures in recent music history. By turns an irascible, toxic, miserabilist noise-merchant and a generous, lighthearted, tuneful romantic, the many moods of Mould can be difficult to metabolize. As he and his restless muse continue to keep one step ahead of us, we can all continue to take pleasure in just trying to keep up.
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