Bob Mould was raging against the machine a full decade before Rage Against the Machine was a band. Early albums with the Minneapolis-based punk trio Husker Du, including the monumental Zen Arcade, proved provocative and influential, due largely to Mould and drummer/singer Grant Hart’s penchant for writing fast, edgy melodic songs that chronicled street life and the punk rock experience. After a couple solo outings, Mould spent the first half of the 90’s fronting the band Sugar, which tended to slow things down enough to let his melodic pop leaning cut through the wall of guitar noise, which earned Sugar airplay on alternative rock stations with singles “Helpless” and “Your Favorite Thing.” In recent decades, Mould has maintained his solo career, deliver a solid collection of tunes every couple of years, often working as a power trio with his trustworthy rhythm section, Jason Narducy on bass and John Wurster on drums.
Early in 2019 Mould released Sunshine Rock, which as the title suggests found the artist emphasizing a more positive point of view as he approaches 60 and his “Final Years.” That song even included a string section as a change of pace. So what got Mould back in the studio again so soon? Clearly, it’s the current “American Crisis” that has turned Mould’s heart blue and raging again against the machine. Mould’s raw, buzzsaw guitar bursts out of the gate, and he screams not once but twice before he even gets to the first lyric, which compares the 80’s AIDS crisis to everything that going wrong today—a viral pandemic, racial protests, political divisiveness—pinpointing all that “us vs. them” thinking, and he’s pretty sure the “Evangelical Isis” is to blame, but “silence = death.” This song is the angry, fast, beating heart of the record, but there’s plenty more where that came from.
“Forecast of Rain” takes another swipe at religious conservatives, and their support for Trump, suggesting that we’re due for an epic flood of righteous judgment of biblical proportions for all the hypocrisy, complete with a churchy organ sustain at song’s end. “Siberian Butterfly” takes on the wasteful approach to natural resources in the face of climate change, while the video for this song concludes on a glistening “Black Lives Matter” billboard. By the way, Mould has produced videos for these first three songs I’ve discussed, all with lyrics spelled out, something I was more than grateful to see.
While the lion’s share of Blue Hearts is Bob Mould at his loudest and fastest, grinding home the urgency he’s obviously feeling about the world we share, the 14 track album opens with the acoustic “Heart on My Sleeve,” where he seems to own his deep despair over the failure of our nation to respond the climate and racial justice crises, while our “broken government” is ruled by greed. His voice is filled with real grief as he strums his 12-string, mourning the face that none of us really know what can be done, or even what to believe. Then he roars into “Next Generation,” where he acknowledges that he’s moving to that point when he’s old and “nobody’s going to listen to me,” but he wants to “take one last stand.” “Life isn’t a joke, it’s so much more,” he argues, “it’s all we get, there’s nothing else/But what gets left for the next generation.”
Blue Hearts is Bob Mould’s 13th solo album, which added together with his Hüsker Dü and Sugar work, other collaborations and live albums, is a monumental catalog, much of it very strong. While he’s always been able to tap that raw human anger at the heart of our confusion and frustration in the world, there’s more at work here than mere rage and release. Bob Mould is sending out an S.O.S. about the world around us that is collapsing in a “Fireball” as it falls finally into “The Ocean.” Surely, there’s plenty going on to wake us from our sound sleep, but it takes a smart funny guy to suggest that perhaps the “Baby Needs a Cookie,” or something like it.
Key Tracks: “American Crisis” / “Siberian Butterfly” / “Forecast of Rain”
Artists With Similar Fire: Hüsker Dü / Superchunk / Pixies
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb