Bob Mould etched a musical line in the sand when he embraced his gayness and started exploring electronica in the late ’90s. Who knows what came first in his personal evolution, but for a while it was as if his time and energy in Hüsker Dü and Sugar were relegated to a punk’s wet dream. He was truly an agent of change.
After not releasing music for four years (an eternity for the prolific songwriter), his initial project in 2002 was a mix of hard rock, samples and beats called Modulate that he recorded all by himself and was roundly rejected by much of his fan base. He turned his back on a planned acoustic album in the mold of his early masterpiece Workbook (his 1989 debut after Hüsker Dü’s breakup) and decided to take his sweet time with 2005’s Body of Song after moving to Washington, D.C. from New York.
Body of Song played out like an intended serious album (how could it not with such a title?) and maybe that was a problem, that it was too solemn. Or the fact that Mould labored to finish it. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but on District Line Mould seems more relaxed than ever, because he has refined his method, accepted his past and contentedly moved on. With a winking smile, even.
The new album’s title refers to a perimeter around the D.C. region where he lives and it is a natural follow up to Body of Song musically. Mould’s traditional layers of guitar are ever present, augmented by the band he assembled for that album including cellist Amy Domingues who plays on twice the songs here.
Mould seems committed to some of his old ideals again, after notoriously retiring from hard rock with The Last Dog and Pony Show a decade ago. Returning players include drummer Brendan Canty and keyboardist Rich Morel, while bassist Jason Narducy, who toured with the band three years ago, also appears on Mould’s seventh solo album.
District Line begins with the vaguely self-deprecating and thoughtful “Stupid Me”, a kitchen-sink rocker that alternates between Sugar-styled guitar and measured use of the vocoder. As Mould nearly begs: “Please listen to me -– and don’t disagree”, you can’t help but notice something else fairly revelatory. Old Man Mould is singing instead of shouting. He is enunciating words and holding phrases, something partly attributable to middle age and to being comfortable in his own skin.
At 47, he is enough of a young man to pen the breezy “Who Needs to Dream”, a self-assessment about “the race to be whole” that is hopelessly draped in a world of casual dating. One of the many highlights is “Again and Again”, a favorite on the recent tour featuring sturdy yet understated guitar work, anguished singing and a plea that Mould is okay in spite of getting back with someone he cannot trust. It’s an epic breakup tale that brings back memories of “Thumbtack” though the stakes are higher, especially as the song downshifts to its close:
I took the bullets from the carport, tossed them in my backpack
Placed a set of keys inside the grill
I left the title to the house inside the piano bench
And my lawyer’s got the will.
That’s how “Again and Again” ends, somberly. It is a natural lead in to “Old Highs New Lows”, a song that is more soothing than its title suggests. Sprinkled with electronic loops but dominated by Mould’s guitar, the song is probably a good example of what he could have achieved with Modulate. But he is not afraid to let it all hang out elsewhere.
“Shelter Me” begins with a dance-heavy beat and could be something from his collaborative BlowOff project with keyboardist Morel. Most importantly the song kicks, or maybe Mould has divined how to ride the fine line between guitar playing and beats-per-minute, so much so that it is impossible to wallow in his story of “slow romantic decay”.
Meanwhile, Hüsker and Sugar fans will rave over “Return to Dust” and “Very Temporary” which are fairly standard 4/4 rock, raw and yearning as his best work. In the latter song, when Mould speaks of a little robin outside his window “who sings a little sonnet for me” at the start of the day, it’s a pleasant confirmation of his place in the world. “The Silence Between Us” is a Sugary piece of ear candy written by Mould in five minutes, and perfectly encapsulates what a pop tune should be with its echoing wall of sound.
“Miniature Parade” is XTC-meets-Tears for Fears, complete with electronics and descending cello lines. It could be the gem of the album’s 10 tracks and while Mould was originally going to conclude District Line with the mini-orchestral piece, he wanted something different and ended up reaching way back.
What he pulled out of his ragged notebook is a Workbook outtake that serves as a statement of artistic being and purpose. “Walls in Time” is a longtime concert staple that Mould said he decided to resurrect because it felt right (he cut the song from Workbook only because “Sinners and their Repentances” was too similar). So Mould comes full circle on District Line, marrying his distant acoustic past to his current path and it seems as if he has found a happy medium, which is all you can ask in the middle aged years, aka that awkward period between misspent youth and the great unknown.