Bob Mould says he has lightened up. In fact, he emphatically insists upon it.
After nearly three decades of hearing Mould play frosty, downtrodden, bitter-pill music - going back to the Reagan-era angst and aggression of his fabled Minneapolis band Husker Du - fans probably aren’t expecting or even hoping to find any humor on his latest album, “District Line.” But he’s not lying - it is there.
It’s there in the jangly, mid-tempo rocker “Who Needs to Dream?” when he sings, “The shape shifting, weightlifting/Hope the presentation will catch his eye” (likely a self-deprecating line about his own recently slimmed-down build). And, as he points out, it’s right away in the opening track, “Stupid Now,” which includes the line, “Haven’t I been enough of a fool for you?”
“`Stupid Now’ is just a hilarious track to start the record with,” he said. “I was hoping people would suddenly realize it’s not a downer at all.”
Humor aside, “Stupid Now” is one of many songs on “District Line” that should immediately sound familiar to fans of his best-known solo work and especially his `90s albums with Sugar.
“It’s strictly a guitar-composition record. That really makes it a lot more familiar and comfortable right off the bat,” Mould said by phone two weeks ago from Washington, D.C., his home since 2002.
D.C. is the “District” in the new album’s title. The city’s role in defining the album is not to be underplayed.
“One of the definitions of the `District Line’ is the boundary of the city, and especially the boundary around my incredibly small life here,” he explained.
His last album, 2005’s comeback-hyped “Body of Song,” included tunes he had written over several years in different cities. The new record was - with the exception of the 1988-penned closer “Walls of Time” - written entirely at home in D.C.
“Now that I’ve settled into routines here and have a really solid group of people around me, I’ve been able to integrate and observe and draw on daily life a lot better,” he said.
Another meaning to “District Line” is a line that people there say a lot. “D.C. was the first place where I was cognizant of the question, `What do ya do?’” he said. “It’s often the first question from strangers here. It’s a fair enough question, but I guess I was put off by it at first. My frustration would be exacerbated by my response, which would be, `Oh, I’m a musician,’ and they would be like, `I didn’t know anyone could make a living at that,’ and then walk away.”
Mould has indeed made a living at it, often with a shrewd business acumen.
“District Line” is one in a series of unique record deals that essentially licenses the album to a record company for a limited time, in this case Anti- Records. But Mould owns the master recordings. It’s a deal he insists upon after well-documented problems getting paid by SST Records, the fabled punk label that was home to Husker Du’s early albums.
“They actually paid up a couple years ago,” he said. “I don’t know how closely it correlated to real life, all I know is what they gave me. I was happy to at least get something.”
Talk of the band’s SST catalog being recaptured and reissued has gone nowhere, thanks to ever-prevalent noncommunication between Mould and ex-bandmates Grant Hart and Greg Norton. This past January marked the 20th anniversary of the band’s split. Mould commemorated the occasion by proudly posting a copy of his original, lawyer-penned resignation letter on his Boblog (linked at www.bobmould.com).
“Like a lot of great decisions, that’s one that should have been made sooner than it was,” he said.
Mould doesn’t discount his years in the Huskers, though. In fact, his 2005 return-to-rock tour (documented on last year’s “Circle of Friends” DVD) was the first time he played his old songs with a band since the `80s. His tour that kicked off March 5 in Minneapolis features a similar game plan and band.
“It wasn’t the scenario that I imagined,” he said, “which was that I’d be playing those songs and they would take me back to the time and places where they were written. That didn’t happen. It was actually really fun.”
Fun? Go figure.