Bob Mould seems to be in celebratory mood these days. Where once, as a young adult, beset by emotional ill health problems, drug abuse, and heightened concerns for those on the edge of existence, he wrote some of the most coruscating guitar, lyric and voice combinations known to man. While he eventually found his inner bittersweet pop melodicism, he often still came screaming out of the traps. Was there a more appropriately entitled Bob Mould track than 1990’s ‘Black Sheets of Rain’?
Well, age may mellow and indeed wisen, and in the case of Mould – who has suffered his fair share of personal loss these last few years, in the form of both his parents, and former Husker Du bandmate Grant Hart – the sun is demonstrably shining. So much so in fact, that variations on the word “sun” appear 27 times in five different songs over the course of the album’s 37 minutes.
The tone is set by bright opener ‘Sunshine Rock’, a simple song of love, complimented by Mould’s typically urgent rhythmic guitar, and the Bruce Springsteen-esque drive of bass and drums. “There’s a bright light, blinding white light / You’re like lightning across the sky / Please don’t leave me in total darkness / I’ll bring you with me into the sunshine rock”. Meanwhile ‘Sunny Love Song’ is just that, albeit again in that strident manner of Mould and band (made up of drummer Jon Wurster and bassist Jason Narducy), with his love affair with Berlin – where he spends most of his time these days – at its heart. However, things degenerate rapidly with the sugary nonsense of ‘Camp Sunshine’, where Sesame Street meets Paul McCartney at its most whimsical: “Greetings from the camp, where every day is fun, the weather’s warm, every one is cool,” a song actually about Mould hanging out with friends and writing loads of songs. It’s not his finest moment.
Thankfully, it’s not all sunshine and light. As nice as that can be, it’s generally not conducive to really good and incisive songwriting (don’t ask me to prove that, I just know it to be self-evident). As on ‘What Do You Want Me To Do’, where the rhythms are sharper, the beats crisper, the pace quicker, and the questioning searching and audible. ‘Thirty Dozen Roses’ is a powerfully punked up burst of visceral energy, showing that Mould, despite being close to pensionable age, still has the ability to strike fast, hard and deep. Even rawer is ‘I Fought’, a powerful slice of punk-pop in its driving simplicity, his voice (all together much less adorned than usual, there is apparently no double-tracking) back in the mix a little, the result coming over like a live recording. They imbue Dutch psychedelic rockers Shocking Blue’s ‘Send Me A Postcard’ (1969) with suitable raucous spirit, hinting at the possibilities of Mould taking on psychedelic rock beyond his life-long love of The Byrds.
Mould is also reaching into – as he has done in the past, with, in particular, a strong interest in EDM – new areas of musical interest, such as on ‘The Final Years’ – a song that is significantly lighter in tone and texture. It also features a synth, and the 18-piece Prague TV Orchestra (as elsewhere on the album), with Mould composing the melody parts they perform. Its 80s vibe is complete with Mould’s husky vocal, a la Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler.
Sunshine Rock is, however, a patchy affair. ‘Irrational Poison’, whilst having an appealingly snaking lead line, fails to raise the pulse; ‘Sin King’ is your typical hardcore sludge bombast; and ‘Lost Faith’, while mildly funky (and indeed is a diversion into negativity: “I’ve lost faith in everything / Everything, everything”) suffers from the use of incongruous strings, and a chorus that just doesn’t fit. There are also fewer of the seismic, supercharged solos that often gave his songs that extra fizz, like a drop or two of tabasco added to your bog standard Bloody Mary.
Still, for a man in his late-50s, this is a remarkable achievement. It’s a record packed with an energy a 20-year-old would struggle to muster, and with Mould still capable of turning out high-quality songs that ultimately speak of his kinship with pop classicism, and his desire to keeping going. As he says: “(I) try to think about good things. Otherwise I could really go down a long, dark hole. I’m trying to keep things brighter these days as a way to stay alive.”