Bob Mould: District Line

David Pyndus

Mould comes full circle, marrying his distant acoustic past to his current path and it seems as if he has found a happy medium.

Bob Mould

District Line

Label: Anti-
US Release Date: 2008-02-05
UK Release Date: 2008-02-11

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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