Ah, Mudhoney. Cormac McCarthy’s new novel The Passenger begins with a suicide and addresses its long aftermath. The victim’s brother, Bobby Western, remains haunted by his sister’s passing for the remainder of his life, limiting his emotional development while also propelling him into unknown territory. I finished the book about a week ago. By virtue of this coincidence, thinking about Kurt Cobain‘s tragic death was unavoidable when approaching Mudhoney’s new album Plastic Eternity. Closing in on three decades ago now, Cobain’s suicide in 1994 marked the end of a music scene that Mudhoney helped establish during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of lead vocalist Mark Arm, guitarist Steve Turner, drummer Dan Peters, and their assorted counterparts across Seattle and the Pacific Northwest in creating a fundamental shift in how people heard and understood music, its far-flung geographies, its bespoke fashion, and its class politics. They stood on the shoulders of numerous predecessors from the 1980s and earlier. Nonetheless, a cultural holism to grunge at the time made it more than simply a sound or manner of playing music. Reflecting the scene’s generational diversity, Cobain, ever generous when it came to musical taste and opinion, looked up to Mudhoney as esteemed elders. If Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and their lesser imitators might be said to comprise New Testament Grunge, Green River, Melvins, and Mudhoney constituted the Old Testament.
There was ample crossover of this generational line, too. The sheer longevity of Mudhoney exemplifies this. Their new album, Plastic Eternity, their 11th LP overall, is not a nostalgia recording. Lyrically, it is firmly focused on the present. Musically, it casts an eye on the past with its minor key chords and loud-quiet-loud tendencies, though the production is clean and polished in a manner that seemingly shrugs at the use of distortion and feedback for getting across ideas. Arm and Co. appear unconcerned with keeping up certain appearances and instead focusing on the songs at hand.
Mudhoney captures this Janus-faced situation with its opener, “Souvenir of My Trip”. “Everyone tells me it’s nice to have me back/ I can’t tell that I’m sure where I’m at,” Arm shouts. “Everything seems the same / Yet I can tell that everything has changed.” However, Plastic Eternity doesn’t dwell on this space-making mode of reflection, proceeding instead to address a litany of contemporary issues like gluttonous capitalist consumption (“Cascades of Crap”), autocratic politics (“Flush the Fascists”), environmental collapse (“Here Comes the Flood”), labor exploitation (“Human Stock Capital”), and climate change (“Cry Me an Atmospheric River”). A lot of cynicism unfolds, and the album leans into the political stance found on its predecessor Digital Garbage from 2018, which took sweeping aim at the absurdities of the far right and its ilk.
Adding levity, if you can call it that, is music firmly in their repertoire, settling into a familiar and satisfying style. “Severed Dreams in the Sleeper Cell” has a classic grunge pacing and guitar riff that evokes past glories, as do “Here Comes the Flood” and “One or Two”. These songs will undoubtedly come alive to significant effect in front of an audience. “Almost Everything” has a percussion intro that recalls “The Classical” by the Fall before returning to more accustomed terrain. “Tom Herman’s Hermits” is an homage to the Pere Ubu guitarist that genuflects toward the style of the legendary Cleveland band. Meanwhile, Plastic Eternity‘s closer “Little Dogs” is an homage expressing Arm’s affection for the subject. For an album that conveys a palpable sense of anger and despair at moments, Mudhoney has not lost its noted sense of self-deprecating humor.
Plastic Eternity will be a hit-or-miss affair for some listeners, partly due to its length. This is a generous record with 13 tracks in total. There is a feeling of fan service, which is not necessarily a bad thing after 35 years as a band, but self-caricature is avoided. There is no single like the canonical, Stooges-inspired “Touch Me I’m Sick”, though “Here Comes the Flood” comes closest to that iconic recording in terms of tight pacing and explosive attitude. Of course, Mudhoney should not be expected to replicate the sounds of their earlier days. To say that Plastic Eternity is not their best is because their legacy is so substantial.
More interestingly, the larger concept driving Plastic Eternity appears to be about what makes it in the world and what doesn’t, which returns us to Cobain. This isn’t a death-haunted album in any immediate way, though Arm’s lyrics impart the point of view of a survivor, with the refrain of the opening track being, “What’s left of me?” The theme of survival forms the subtext of the LP’s subsequent topics of environmental crisis, overrun capitalism, and anti-democratic politics. The album title insinuates that what endures is not what is most unique and special but instead the lowest common denominator.
To be a survivor isn’t intrinsically better. Yet, for those who persist, it is essential to bear witness and tell stories to those who come after. Mudhoney has succeeded at that.