Photo: Courtesy of Merge Records via Bandcamp

Bob Mould Goes Back to the 1980s for the Sound of ‘Blue Hearts’

This year looks a lot like 1984 to Bob Mould and he is most definitely, not happy. Not happy at all. His guitar sounds like it's on fire.

Blue Hearts
Bob Mould
Merge Records
25 September 2020

A lot can happen in 18 months. Careers can blossom and die. Governments can rise and fall. Entire genres of music can emerge and dwindle in just one and a half trips around the sun. So why are we so baffled by Bob Mould‘s mood swing, from the happy happy, joy joy of last year’s Sunshine Rock to the pissed off, teeth-baring, bile-fest of Blue Hearts?

Mould is angry, and he wants to share that with us. Fortunately, if you were drawing up a list of artists who can articulate rage and aggression in a taut, powerful, and direct way, then Mould would be pretty close to the top of the list. Let’s face it – he’s got form. From the early speed-freak hardcore of Hüsker Dü to Blue Hearts, his back catalogue is littered with dissatisfaction. He’s honed it until it’s as sharp as a stiletto. Sunshine Rock had lured you into a false sense of security, only for Blue Hearts to poke you in the ribs. Hard.

Mould knows the power of the three-piece band, and Jason Narducy (bass) and Jon Wurster (drums) match his energy level perfectly and provide a skin-tight, powerful backdrop for Mould to emote over. On the album’s opening track, “Heart on My Sleeve”, however, the rhythm section take time out while Mould strums acoustically through a brief, bleak folk song. “And we’re going to war,” he sings. “And we’re going to die.” After that, you’d better strap yourself in, or the whiplash will take your head off. The next two tracks, “Next Generation” and “American Crisis”, pass by in a blur, with all the musicians sharing a brutal, common purpose. You’ve got to go back to Hüsker Dü’s 1985 album Flip Your Wig, to hear Mould in this incendiary mood. His guitar sounds like it’s on fire.

“Forecast of Rain” eases off the gas pedal, but ramps up the intensity, with Mould pointing his finger at Jesus this time: “This love thy neighbor thing, does it apply to all mankind? / Or only those who fit neatly inside your narrow lines?” It bows out on a gloomy, organ coda. It’s a temporary respite.

Despite the music’s frantic tempo, the musicians’ aggression, and the vitriol in the lyrics, Mould makes sure that there’s a tune as the backbone of everything. Tracks like “Siberian Butterfly” could almost be power-pop if he toned down the fuzztone and dropped the beats-per-minute a notch. I don’t think that was on option on this record. One slightly less than favorable nod to Mould’s past is that the lyrics are buried in the mix underneath almost everything else on many songs. When the words rise above the noisy shards of guitar, they’re fascinating, but for a lot of Blue Hearts, they’re just part of the texture. I hope he’s printed them on the album sleeve because I know they’re worth reading.

Maybe Mould is so angry because he’s been here before, sort of. Hüsker Dü, two-thirds of which were gay, had to contend with AIDS inspired homophobia in the 1980s. And now we have another set of plagues to live through. “Never thought I’d see this bullshit again,” he sings on “American Crisis”. “To come of age in the ’80s was bad enough.” He hammers the theme home on “Baby Needs a Cookie”. “Haven’t you heard this song before?” Maybe we have, but we haven’t heard it so purposefully expressed.

Angry records are easy to make. Pumped up on righteous indignation, you get a loud, distorted guitar noise going and have a 40-minute hissy fit. But why should anyone give a damn what you think? The trick is to make your angst visceral and believable. When you listen to Blue Hearts, at no stage will you think Mould’s rage is phoned in. Intrinsic to the fabric of the songs and woven into every layer is sincerity and honesty. Whether he’s railing against the failing state of America on “American Crisis” or the failing state of a personal relationship on “Leather Dreams”, or “Everyth!ng to You”, you cannot doubt for a second that he means every word you can almost hear.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Bob Mould had to reach back over 30 years to rediscover the vocabulary he needed for Blue Hearts. 2020 Bob Mould had a conversation with 1985 Bob Mould, and they both agreed that something had to be done. The result is an album of which both of them should be very proud.