[20 September 2012]
“Never too old to contain my rage,” goes a line on the new Bob Mould disc, and you have to kind of be amazed. Not at the penmanship, per se, but at the realization that, holy crow!, Bob Mould is more than 50 years old! (He turns 52 in mid-October.) Was it really nearly a half-lifetime ago that I was in my parent’s basement bopping around, pretending to play along on an invisible Flying V to most of Hüsker Dü’s back catalogue? Time flies. Well, time has seemingly been kind to Bob Mould, as Silver Age, his latest solo release, proves. The guy can still bring the rock to the table. In fact, Silver Age is a return to form for the former Hüsker Dü/Sugar frontman. You listen to this record and realize that a good chunk of it sounds exactly a lot like Sugar’s 1992 masterstroke, Copper Blue, another mineral-inspired album that is going out on tour with Mould this fall. The problem? Well, a good chunk of it sounds exactly a lot like Sugar’s 1992 masterstroke, Copper Blue. Am I repeating myself? Well, so is Bob Mould.
Still, a lot of us long-suffering fans would probably want to sit through Bob Mould pretending to be the Bob Mould of 20 years ago than his latter-day attempts to reinvent himself as an experimental techno superstar and sometimes DJ. Let’s just leave it at the fact that there are some things a guy can’t do well, and, for Mould, electronica is his Achilles’s heel. Thankfully, Silver Age is utterly devoid of any electronics, unless you’re referring to the effects pedal on his guitar. In fact, Silver Age is an album made by a guy who is comfortable with himself and has little left to prove – music made by an “elder” statesman of the alternative rock “tribe”. Even if Bob Mould supposedly hates alternative rock. (See the 1996 hubcap album, if you know what I mean.)
For that reason, critics are really lapping this up. I’m coming to this record a little late, as I only received my digital copy on the release date (which sometimes happens, no blame meant), and as I write this on the Sunday following the disc’s release, after my requisite three listens to an album before passing judgment on it, I see that Silver Age has a whopping 87 percent Metascore on Metacritic.com from 13 critics – which would indicate a record that would be up there with the very best of the best albums released this year. I can only surmise that it is getting the accolades it is getting because A) there’s no techno, B) it sounds like Sugar and C) thus taps into a certain nostalgia for what Bob Mound should sound like. Listening to Silver Age is less, then, an exercise in growing with an artist than revisiting past glories. For better or worse, Silver Age is a pretty good summation of the signposts of Mould’s career some time back. There may be a reason for this: my suspicion is that Silver Age marks the fourth solo album in a row to come out on his third major independent label, so perhaps there’s some pressure on him to deliver a “hit” because Mould is running out of avenues to pursue his music, or get it into an audience’s hands save releasing it on his own – which he did on Modulate, and we all know how successful an experiment that was. (Not very.)
As good as Silver Age is, and it is pretty good, I find myself not being able to hitch my wagon to most of the other critics out there and call this a superlative release. (I’m feeling a little bit like the kid in the parade who declares the emperor actually isn’t wearing any clothes.) The primary reason is that I can go trolling through my Mould record collection – the only things I’m currently missing, aside from singles, is Sugar’s Beaster, which just got re-released a few months ago (so I have no excuse) and Hüsker Dü’s Everything Falls Apart and More (which I stupidly got rid of when I purged myself of “angry music” and haven’t been able to find in record store or online since) – and dig into most of what Mould delivers here, making Silver Age feel a little bit redundant. For instance, once again Mould has penned a screed against modern rock in “Star Machine”, which is “I Hate Alternative Rock” for the American Idol-age. Bob, we’ve been there and done this, and we get that you’re a man of integrity who will never have a No. 1 hit for the sake of it. Let’s move on. Final track “First Time Joy” with its strings sounds like anything dialled in from Mould’s baroque-sounding first solo album Workbook. Been there, done that. “Stream of Hercules” sounds like the similarly mid-tempo and sludgy “The Slim” off of Copper Blue. If Silver Age has something, it’s a serious case of the blues. The Copper Blues.
In the end, I feel myself really torn on this one. The old Sugar-loving fan in me is sort of glad to have the old Bob Mould back and would agree that Silver Age is worth owning for that reason, but the music critic in me is reluctant to judge this one because it is so exactly a regurgitation and summary of the sound he made 20 years ago. There’s even a chorus, of what sounds suspiciously like “she said, she said”, in “Star Machine” that sounds familiarly like “A Good Idea” (not really). This is the kind of record that Bob Mould could have made in his sleep. You can make the quip that Silver Age is a new gold standard for Mould – and, believe me, I’ve read a review of the album that does just that – but, in truth, it’s simply just a pretty not bad retread. It’s energetic enough, and vital enough, and I welcome Mould back to his raging roots, but Silver Age fails one key test. I sadly can’t imagine my 17-year-old self playing air guitar to any of these songs. I already had favourites of my own, and would much prefer to revisit them than have Bob Mould simply retool them, as he, alas, does so lovingly and faithfully in his Silver Age. Still, uh, there is no techno here, which counts for something.