There is a core of characteristics that capture something like a worldview espoused by Mudhoney, and it helps to explain the longevity of their appeal. There’s a misanthropic streak – consider that, for example, their first single from Superfuzz Bigmuff (1988) is called “Touch Me I’m Sick”, and it is the first in a series of sarcastic songs about wielding or wallowing in sickness. There are the political views that periodically turn up, right-on-the-nose in their messaging, usually funny, and often vicious. And there’s the pervasive self-awareness and self-deprecation. They’re still a bunch of very smart misfits, guys with day jobs, uninterested in compromising their music or their witheringly black humor. They are prepared to laugh at the ironies and the miseries of existence.
It’s an appealing outlook on music and life. It doesn’t evidently have a wide appeal, mind you, at least relative to the more commercially successful bands with whom they are enmeshed by geography and history. But although they have made occasional stylistic departures over the last 30 years – adding or subtracting a horn section or a second guitar, for example – core musical and lyrical elements remain essentially the same. The Mudhoney fan can reasonably expect to hear a loose-fitting and pretty inspired mix of the Stooges, Black Sabbath, Lyres, and New York Dolls.
In this sense, Digital Garbage slots neatly into their catalogue. “Kill Yourself Live” and “Next Mass Extinction” revisit Under a Billion Suns (2006), where Mark Arm and Steve Turner’s guitar playing is textured and ringing in a way that recalls Sonic Youth and electric Neil Young. The most straight-forward punk song is the great “Prosperity Gospel”, a protest against the American habit for worshipping the wealthy. The song’s energy and hooks rise to the level of Arm’s intensity. “Night and Fog” is the album’s surprise, a ponderous but smartly arranged art-punk song that sounds like End Hits-era Fugazi joined them in the studio. It’s an effective experiment.
But on Digital Garbage it’s the political element that moves to the center, and this by far the band’s angriest and most political album. Some of Arm’s old and favorite targets appear here. Hypocritical Christian conservatives get a thrashing in “21st Century Pharisees” and “Messiah’s Lament”. The latter is written from the point of view of the Messiah himself, complaining, “I fed 5000 with five loaves and two fishes / These days they’d just whine about their dietary restrictions.” More to the point is “Mr. Gunman” where churchgoers are resigned to, and politely requesting, that when the gunman makes the inevitable appearance he allows them to die in the church.
This is the grim tone that prevails throughout Digital Garbage. Elsewhere we are faced with the mass extinction of humanity, paranoia and conspiracy theories, income inequality, exhibitionism and suicide, and social media trash culture. The key piece is “Hey Neanderfuck” because in it a precise profile for the source of Arm’s rage comes into focus. Arm is very far from suggesting that the above-named social and environmental problems are inevitable or induced by anything so nebulous as “society”. Nor should their causes be misattributed. Rather they are products of – or exacerbated by – the beliefs, activities, voting patterns, and politics of a very specific kind of individual, a “miserable bastard bent on revenge”, who finally got what he wanted: “This shit is yours now” and “all the oxycontin in the world / won’t make your pain go away.” It’s the United States in 2018. Digital Garbage is really a massive fuck you to the alt-right in America.
Does the emphasis on topical matters, politics, and anger cost the band something? When on “Kill Yourself Live”, a song about sensationalizing suicide on social media, Arm sings, “Lock yourself in a freezer, get naked and peel off your skin / you can leave your hat on, you can blow your head off” we begin to wonder if these guys have lost something of their cheerful spirit. Hopefully not, and probably not, because while it’s a cringe-inducing moment, it’s arguably not even the most tasteless song in their catalogue. And the ridiculousness of the song’s lyrical content is the partly the point. Most likely listeners already keyed into Mudhoney’s music and style will get it. This remains true for as a whole.