Just last year, Bob Mould was happy. He named a whole album Sunshine Rock, of all things. Can you imagine? A veteran purveyor of emotions ranging from pissed-off to angsty to deeply tortured was, after all these years, looking on the bright side. Of course, you could already get the sense from interviews that Mould had aged gracefully, finding some modicum of peace and exuding a warmer, more reflective persona than the pricklier reputation expected of him in past decades. And it’s not like he was lost in the clouds at the same time — when I interviewed him last year, he talked about old Hüsker Dü material like “In A Free Land” feeling, sadly, just as relevant in Trump’s America as it was in Reagan’s. He had plenty to say about the precarious state of the world, and maybe you could sense he would soon do that in song.
That brings us to Blue Hearts, arriving a mere 17 months after Sunshine Rock and yet existing on the extreme opposite side of Mould’s songwriting. Bob Mould is angry again. Righteously, volcanically angry. It’s good to have that version of him back.
Not that Mould has been far from sight in some time. Over the last decade or so, he’s undergone a great late-career renaissance. He’s partially attributed this resurgence to revisiting the power-trio format that’s always served him well, and the fact that he’s landed on a stable band with Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster. After a middle era experimenting with electronica and other sounds — generally moving away from the raw rock format — Mould seemed to reclaim his old voice and aesthetic on 2009’s Life And Times, which partially arose out of research conducted for his memoir. That sonic homecoming yielded a prolific streak, totaling six albums in 11 years, with highlights spread out evenly amongst them. Still, even by Mould’s recent standards, the quick followup and simultaneous about-face after Sunshine Rock make Blue Hearts feel like a particularly urgent and fiery missive from his elder statesman years. He’s been around, but not like this.
Mould introduced the album with the pointedly titled “American Crisis,” which happened to come out during a week when nationwide protests erupted in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. The song was actually originally written for Sunshine Rock, then left off for somewhat obvious reasons. When it did arrive, it seemed unfortunately perfect — Mould was talking about his own experience with a different kind of pandemic (AIDS in the ’80s), but the song dropped into a year in which Americans were grappling with coronavirus and an entirely mishandled government response at the same time that they were protesting the frequent killing of innocent Black people. “American Crisis” became the genesis of Blue Hearts when, last fall, Mould found himself compelled to write a new collection of songs addressing all his frustrations and anxieties about this country in recent years. It’s a bracing, seething track, with Mould’s lyrics cataloguing an overflowing lineage of our society’s broken parts. The album it birthed could have just as well been called American Crisis — the phrase, either way, is certainly its central theme.
But Blue Hearts starts in a slightly different place. “Heart On My Sleeve” is a bare, acoustic manifesto for the album — it’s restrained compared to everything that follows, but you can still hear Mould shivering with ire, all his pent-up rage about to boil over across the rest of the album. In broad strokes, he manages to gesture at almost all the concerns that populate the album: “The Left Coast is covered in ash and flames/ Keep denying the winds of climate change,” “Across the Plains are fields of rotting wheat/ Appalachian trail of pain relief,” “And the cities are teeming/ Roiling over with tension and greed,” “The rising tide of broken government… And we’re going to war/ And we’re going to die.”
The climate and opioid crises, dead-end economic prospects, gentrification, late capitalism, more deeply entrenched divisions between different parts of this country, threats to American democracy from within — it’s all on the table. “Don’t know what I believe anymore,” Mould sings towards the end, perhaps alluding to the distortion of facts that’s become all too common in daily life (and conversation amongst ourselves), but also getting at the general headspace of Blue Hearts. Bob Mould is angry, but he’s also lost and disoriented while staring down the apocalypse at a middle distance. The feeling is relatable, to say the least.
From there, it is clear Mould has everything on his mind. There is a lot to be furious about these days, and Mould is right there, railing against hypocritical conservative evangelicals in one chorus and mulling over the warping of concepts like “free speech” in another. Accordingly, he is not doing so over contemplative, half-measured music, nor does his big State Of The World album necessitate sprawl or complex arrangements. While the entire album might not match the runaway energy of “American Crisis,” Blue Hearts is almost uniformly loud, Mould roaring or barking over caustic distortion and impatient, fed-up arrangements. From “Next Generation” to “Fireball” to “Siberian Butterfly” to “Racing To The End,” Mould and Narducy and Wurster favor breakneck rhythms that mirror the desperation at the album’s core — a desperation to understand how we can keep letting these things go on, and how in the hell we’re going to escape this mess.
Nor is Blue Hearts always overly concerned with subtlety in its lyrics. These are, in basic form, protest songs, and Mould does a whole lot of his own sloganeering: “Here’s the newest American Crisis/ Thanks to Evangelical ISIS” or “You’re one of us/ Or one of them/ If you’re one of them/ Don’t come near me again.” Elsewhere, he teases out interesting images. “Siberian Butterfly” approaches the climate crisis from the perspective of a rare creature and the people who would make the planet unlivable for the rest of us for the sake of their own profit. Meanwhile, “Password To My Soul” could be a first-person reckoning, or it could be a story about losing sight of someone in your own life as they fall down a rabbit hole of online manipulation and conspiracy theories, choosing the solace of bizarre fantasies in a period of time that itself feels illegible as reality.
This era appears as if it will, to some extent, confound artists for years to come. The threats looming in our lives are so significant, and our leadership so perverse, that the absurd death-drive timbre of recent years has already been well-established as almost impervious to fictionalization or satire. How are artists supposed to process it then? How can you work with real-life material that, if it originated from a book or movie, would regularly be decried as ridiculously on-the-nose? Maybe there’s not much room for subtlety in that context.
Blue Hearts is one example of an artist reacting to these times, in these times, without much regard for tip-toeing around it. You pretty much can tell what “Baby Needs A Cookie” is about before you even listen to it, and maybe you don’t really need a Trump-era song called “Baby Needs A Cookie” in your life. But then you hear Mould sneering his way around the words, relishing them, and you think: This is a guy who has been, on and off for nearly 40 years, making loud music about his own demons, but also society’s ills. There’s almost something comforting about hearing someone a few decades your senior being just as aghast and confused and exhausted as we’ve all felt these past several years.
That’s the thing about Blue Hearts: Maybe a non-stop political screed from Mould would be, on some level, welcome on its own. And, sure enough, songs like “American Crisis” and “Forecast Of Rain” provide catharsis as much as they remind you that you should be very angry right now, that none of us can afford to become complacent. But ultimately, the album feels born from a place of compassion, the outpouring of an aging man who has seen cycles of trauma and history play out, but never quite like this before. “The last few years have been so frustrating I lose little pieces of myself each day/ The lines get deeper on my face each season/ Say I don’t care as I weather away,” he sings in “Little Pieces,” towards the end of the album. For all the global and national levels on display across Blue Hearts, Mould’s biggest gut-punches come when he articulates the personal loss that occurs in tumultuous times.
To that end, there are little detours, side stories that flesh out Blue Hearts. Songs like “When You Left” and “Leather Dreams” seem to allude to lost love and former dalliances. The fact that, in the span of all this, Mould writes about relationships as a gay man — a topic core to his life that he couldn’t speak on for so many years — seems to only serve his broader points about the destructive cycles we’re caught in and the way it all seems to slide further down into chaos. He has seen too much of this before; in a recent interview with American Songwriter, he reflected on the Trump presidency and his recollections of 1983, before Reagan’s reelection, living as a closeted gay man watching a “televangelist presidency” that refused to acknowledge AIDS. Sometimes Mould makes all the parallels explicit, and sometimes he lets the thoughts fly around in the kind of frantic cloud all our minds occupy these days. But the overarching point is always there: The ongoing struggle against people in power who will never give a shit about making the world better for those beneath or different from them.
In that same interview, Mould acknowledged he didn’t speak up as aggressively decades ago, and he sees himself in a position now where he had to — if he didn’t, what else were all these years of accumulated experience and stature good for? “When I’m hoarse and deaf and feeble/ Nobody’s going to listen to me/ Time to take one last stand/ Try to make you understand,” he sings early on, in the rushing “Next Generation.” The song looks back to Mould’s own youth, but it also thinks of all the young people who haven’t lived yet. “Life isn’t a joke, it’s so much more/ It’s all we get, there’s nothing else/ But what gets left for the next generation.” Across Blue Hearts, Mould isn’t just reacting to the latest headlines. He’s fearful for our very future. In the year 2020, Mould’s extended comeback has coalesced into one of the most dialed-in, vital collections he’s put together in quite a while. It sounds like a rallying cry. It also sounds like a warning.
Blue Hearts is out 9/25 on Merge. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Fleet Foxes’ gorgeous, suddenly released new album Shore.
• Sufjan Stevens’ The Ascension, which we’ll talk about more soon.
• Deftones’ heady, heavy, very Deftones-y Ohms.
• IDLES’ Ultra Mono, which is certainly an IDLES album.
• Thurston Moore’s latest solo outing, By The Fire.
• Sylvan Esso’s reliably idiosyncratic Free Love.
• Lydia Loveless post-divorce, post-move, big-life-changes album Daughter.
• Will Butler’s sophomore solo effort, Generations.
• Sadie Dupuis’ latest Sad13 album, Haunted Painting.
• Yves Jarvis’s enigmatic, genre-agnostic Sundry Rock Song Stock.
• Róisín Murphy’s wonderfully titled Róisín Machine.
• The Menzingers’ Hello Exile reimagining From Exile.
• A Certain Ratio’s first new album in 11 years, ACR Loco.
• Svalbard beautifully heavy When I Die, Will I Get Better?.
• Dropdead’s first album in over 20 years, Self Titled.
• Mint Field’s heat-soaked, psychedelic Sentimiento Mundial.
• Ziemba hazy, emotive True Romantic.
• Marie Davidson & L’Œil Nu’s rock/pop/band-oriented exploration Renegade Breakdown.
• Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Andrew Bird-featuring Lost Songs Of Doc Souchon.
• Action Bronson’s as-yet-unheard Only For Dolphins.
• 2 Chainz’s also as-yet-unheard So Help Me God.
• Carrie Underwood’s Christmas album My Gift.
• Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite’s team-up 100 Years Of Blues.
• Beverly Glenn-Copeland’s career-spanning compilation, Transmissions: The Music of Beverly Glenn-Copeland.
• Public Enemy’s What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down, which is stacked with collabs with fellow legendary artists.
• Blue Hawaii’s awesome house mixtape, Under 1 House.
• Tim Heidecker’s more sincere classicist rock (and Weyes Blood-featuring) collection, Fear Of Death.
• Prince’s deluxe edition reissue of Sign O’ The Times.