In its early years, Mudhoney consciously cultivated an image as a group of underachievers armed only with distortion pedals and leering attitude; both were on display in the band’s 1988 debut EP, Superfuzz Bigmuff, from the title on down. The underachiever tag wasn’t inaccurate: for several albums Mudhoney would set a few brilliant tracks adrift in seas of static sameness. By the time of 1995’s My Brother the Cow the band had been surpassed by every other Seattle grunge upstart from Nirvana to Candlebox, and almost no one noticed when Mudhoney finally dropped a legitimately great album.
Saturated in the usual influences of the Stooges and the Nuggets collection, but now going beyond simply soaking those influences up, My Brother the Cow absorbed them into its tarnished sweat rag and squeezed out its own perverse mix of acid, bile and beer. Singer Mark Arm went beyond attitude, too, openly directing Courtney Love to “blow out your brains out, too”. Emo this was not, but Mudhoney didn’t care; did people think the Sonics had been kidding about that strychnine? Meanwhile, on guitar Steve Turner gnashed out brittle, angry riffs that bypassed searching to go straight for destroying.
After My Brother Mudhoney fell further from the public radar; another strong major-label album gained even less notice, and by the time the band returned to its original label Sub Pop for 2002’s Since We’ve Become Translucent the label had long since shifted its focus from the so-called grunge movement to the summery pop bliss of the Shins. Of course, opening the album with an eight-minute psychedelic opus didn’t help matters.
Now the band returns with Under a Billion Suns, if not its best album then certainly its most explosive. Literally: this is a set of songs full of apocalyptic imagery, with bombs dropping and the entire sky igniting into blinding light. Mark Arm roots it in trashy Cold War themes laced with radiation and plucked from the worldview of 1950s drive-in B-movies. From the very first lines of “Where is the Future?” Arm’s sarcasm is at its sharpest: “I was born on an airforce base, 1962,” he sneers, “a rocket launch into outer space knocked me out of the womb.” Turner’s slow, fuzz-drenched guitar detonates its own occasional bursts of harmonics, and a horn section—already seen on Since We’ve Become Translucent but utilized more potently here—blasts through the aftermath of Arm’s wailing verses. It’s a gripping opener, but the next track, “It Is Us”, confirms that Mudhoney needs no brass buttress, with a searing lead by Turner, impassioned howling by Arm, and a perfect garage-rock drop-off by dynamo drummer Dan Peters, who halts things as Arm shouts the chorus: “we’ve seen the enemy and it”—halt drums—“is us”. Then, with two thumps of the kick-drum, “IT IS us!” It’s an old trick, but deployed correctly it’s irresistible, and Peters nails it. The horns show up to close things, but only after Mudhoney has definitively reestablished its mastery of the garage.
“You went down like a nuclear bomb,” Arm announces on “I Saw the Light”, “I saw a flash and then you were gone.” Backed by the tender, gospel-like strains of a choir, he sounds like some demented Elmer Gantry confessing: “We leveled cities for miles around/ Making love on the smoldering ground.” It’s a bravura performance, and Arm is at his best inhabiting sleazy, lecherous characters, like the Karl Rove-ish narrator of “Hard-On for War”, who explains the logic of war to a “little girl” wondering where all the “little boys have gone” in lines worth quoting:
See the lovely, lonesome ladies, they don’t ignore me anymore
All those lovely, lonesome ladies, knock-knockin’ on my door
I’m the only game in town, and it’s so easy to score
Now I know why dirty old men are always pushing for war
It’s vicious satire of the best kind, second in the band’s canon only to My Brother the Cow‘s ferocious “F.D.K. (Fearless Doctor Killers),” the parody of “pro-life” murderers that ended with the chilling promise, “I’ll kill for you, baby Jesus.” Will Mudhoney rescue us from the Iraq quagmire? Obviously not, and they know it, making “Hard-on for War” more effective than mawkish protest songs like Bright Eyes’ “When the President Talks to God”. Infused with bitter defeatism, all the song can hope for is character assassination, which it delivers in a crushing blow.
Anyone seeking verification for Mudhoney’s underachiever classification will find it here without much trouble; “A Brief Celebration of Indifference” lives up to its title, a garage jam not quite interesting enough to merit its instrumental approach. Under a Billion Suns detours into a few more dirgey filler tracks around the halfway mark, but they don’t detract too much from its impact, and the band pulls it together for the rousing finale. “Blindspots” catalogs its narrator’s sensory deprivations—blindspots, hardness of hearing—until it reaches his nose: “I can smell bullshit from miles away,” Arms declares, over another ace Turner riff that graciously steps aside for a bizarre horn intervention; the album closes as the saxes, trombones and trumpet traipse through a perky 1980s R&B section before melting down into a cacophonous tarpit. The album sinks into it with a smirk, knowing full well it won’t elevate Mudhoney beyond its permanent cult status but that a chosen few will recognize it for the giddy wasteland it is, the band’s best effort in over a decade. For a band that claims to be “empty shells of our former selves” (as they do on “Empty Shells”), Mudhoney continues to bear more substance than it wants to admit.