Bob Mould may have begun this decade experimenting with new musical styles for his solo work, but ever since 2002’s Modulate he’s been slowly retracting that head-first dive into electronic music with a succession of redemptive releases, each more rock-oriented than the last. Yet where those last three albums have come almost perfunctorily spaced three years apart, the short 14-month span between 2008’s District Line and his new Life and Times stands out as an anomaly. At risk of reading too much into his return to a Hüsker Dü-paced release schedule, it’s still fair to say that Life and Times sounds rushed when compared to the meticulous craft of his earlier output from this decade. But where “rushed” might be a pejorative term for some artists, for Mould it equates to a late-career revelation — this is without question the rawest and most vital he’s sounded in quite some time.
It goes without saying that anyone seeking Hüsker Dü or Sugar redux ought to look elsewhere, but the ten largely unadorned tracks on Life and Times nearly negate the electronic embellishments Mould has favored in recent years. He also appears to have permanently abandoned the vocoder, which is never a bad thing. Although Mould plays all of the instruments heard on the album other than the drums — expertly handled by Superchunk’s Jon Wurster — the music never comes across as a bedroom project or the bloated over-productions of unchecked narcissism.
But the real story of this album is Mould’s guitar playing. Well-layered and overdubbed throughout (but never at immediacy’s expense), Mould has rediscovered the unique blend of noise and melodicism that was so essential to Hüsker Dü’s sound. It’s true that his guitar work became increasingly prominent once more on those recent albums, but it’s been a long time — at least on record — since he’s let loose as he does here. It’s tempting to pin some responsibility for that on his newly acquired No Age connection — Mould joined the band for two songs (one a Hüsker Dü cover) at the 2009 Noise Pop Festival — but it also works well as a vehicle for the album’s often-angry lyrical tone.
Unfortunately, that’s where things get complicated: the title track starts the album off on a nostalgic note, but one that’s fused with a sense of high melodrama. Used in varying degrees across all 10 songs, the sentiment frequently comes across as something born of a younger artist, except that Mould keeps his feelings raw enough to avoid sounding emo. But that doesn’t make lines like “I need to find a fantastic place to dream / Please don’t take my dream away from me” any less melodramatic, especially when setting the album’s tone in the very first song.
The heavy mood is alleviated somewhat by a pair of tracks near the middle that most clearly recall Mould’s first band, both late period (“MM17”) and early (“Argos”, the most punk he’s sounded in a long time). It turns out to be an all-too brief respite, as the second half revives the melodrama and steps it up a notch with “Bad Blood Better” and the clumsily-titled first single “I’m Sorry, Baby, But You Can’t Stand in My Light Anymore”. But sandwiched between the two of those rest a couple of gems that remind what a great song-crafter Mould can be. “Spiraling Down” in particular is a classic example of the kiss-off song that he writes so well, not to mention how the false breakdown after the guitar solo demonstrates that the author can still surprise us with an inventive arrangement. It’s arguably the best track on the disc, and one that offers fleeting relief from the downers that surround it.
In a clever twist on the title and opening track, the album ends with “Lifetime” — reinforcing the sense of nostalgia that permeates these 10 vignettes. Mould insists that the lyrics are not autobiographical (“these are things that happen to all of us”), but it’s difficult not to project upon the situations they describe. In this context, it’s also interesting that each song musically touches upon various phases of his career (early- and late-period Hüsker Dü, Sugar, his solo debut Workbook) more than anything he’s done in recent memory, yet he always maintains a sonic consistency across the album. So even if these aren’t Mould’s actual “Life and Times”, he relays them with a conviction that, although occasionally over-the-top, makes them live and breathe as if they were his own.