“It’s a really simple, natural, reactionary record after the three-year process of writing the autobiography,” Bob Mould says in a recent chat with Rolling Stone, describing Silver Age, his hard-to-believe-it 10th solo album (and that ain’t counting the prolific outputs of the sublime Hüsker Dü or the overrated Sugar). He goes on to cite two inspirations for this new album from everyone’s favorite indie Merge: Copper Blue, the 1992 debut by Sugar, and a stint last year opening for… the Foo Fighters.
In my book, neither of those are promising harbingers. As tipped a moment ago, Sugar always seemed like a rather desperate and pandering move by a musical groundbreaker who’d missed the alternative-era gravy train even though he’d helped enable it, and it not only fell short of his mighty accomplishments with the Hüskers, but paled in comparison to his stellar early solo efforts Workbook and Black Sheets of Rain. As for Dave Grohl’s brainlessly catchy, hard-wrocking, corporate-stooge Foo Fighters… well, they’re about as far as one can stray from the intense Mr. Mould at his ferocious, searing, cathartic and grotesquely bloody best.
But Uncle Grumpy is really just playing with us in all of that pre-release chattering about a return to mindless rocking. As much as his 2011 Michael Azerrad-assisted autobiography See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody, Silver Age is a deep, moving and bravely introspective rumination about the artist’s failings and the ugliness of the world — in particular the music world, with the opening “Star Machine” standing as one of its most savage eviscerations ever — lightened to some extent by the hope (but only the hope) of redemption through love, as well as a healthy if sardonic dose of humor. Grumpy he may be, but he’s pretty funny at times, too.
None of this is a departure for Mould, of course, but the return to brutal, no-holds-barred assaults on that infamous guitar coupled with a renewed emphasis on powerful, indelible melodies (some of ’em as good as vintage Grant Hart even!) combine to make this short but sweet set of 10 tunes hammered out with sympathetic accompanists Jon Wurster (Superchunk, Tom Scharpling) and Evanston native Jason Narducy (Verbow) the most vital the musician has given us since The Last Dog and Pony Show in 1998, when he allegedly retired from rock to play with his synthesizers (and the less said about that period the better). All of which is to say that at age 51, after 33 years in the spotlight, no one can kick your ass while making you think (and maybe even cry) quite like the man from Minnesota.
Bob Mould, Silver Age (Merge)
Rating on the four-star scale: Four stars.