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Review: With 'Blue Hearts,' Bob Mould's Music and Messaging are Perfectly in Sync

by Kevin Schattenkirk
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Sep 25, 2020
Review: With 'Blue Hearts,' Bob Mould's Music and Messaging are Perfectly in Sync

Last year, when legendary punk singer-songwriter Bob Mould released "Sunshine Rock," the album was noted for an optimism and warmth in its lyrics that aren't particularly typical of his style. And while it was certainly welcome to hear a more contented outlook from the rocker, if anything he tapped into an energy that was an ever-so-slight left turn that served that album well.

Mould's latest, "Blue Hearts," is the sixth in a particularly strong run of albums that began with 2009's "Life and Times." The new album, like its predecessor, taps into a vein of energy that serves his concerns well — his politics are matched by a distinctly urgent delivery. It makes sense when Mould says he put himself in the mindset of "Zen Arcade," the 1984 classic by his former band Hüsker Dü — "not so much trying to re-create anything, but just to reflect on what I had as resources." He's said the album is meant to "shake people up a little bit." And it does. Mould has something to say, and he's got to say it now.

At 14 songs in approximately 40 minutes these songs get in, make their point, and get out; there's no lingering. With Mould on guitar, bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster return for their fifth consecutive album backing the artist. This is a tight, cohesive trio that clearly presents Mould with plentiful musical possibilities. Excepting the electronic music detours of 2002's "Modulate" and "Long Playing Groove," there's also a stylistic consistency to Mould's rock — a reliability not dissimilar to AC/DC — particularly over the last 12 years.

The biggest diversions are album opener "Heart on My Sleeve," simultaneously anxious and dirge-like as it addresses climate change ("the West Coast is covered in ash and flames, keep denying the winds of climate change"), and closer "The Ocean," which slows the tempo with a bare-bones band arrangement where the distorted rock guitars kick in about two minutes in. Falling between these bookends is a relentless stream of exhilarating punk rockers that leave one exhausted at the album's end.

"Next Generation," "Fireball," "Siberian Butterfly," "Everything to You," "Racing to the End," and "Little Pieces" are fast-paced and brash — demonstrating exactly why and how Mould has been an influence on bands like Foo Fighters.

The topicality throughout reflects and comments on outrageous rhetoric and behaviors that are becoming more common, and dangerously prone to being dismissed. On "Forecast of Rain," Mould quotes Trump's leaked hot-mic comments on "Access Hollywood" for the purpose of calling out religious hypocrisy: "When you're a star, you can do what you want." And from here, Mould takes aim at GOP Evangelicals willing to sacrifice their principles, defending the president's repulsive conduct and lack of compassion for the sake of embracing Trump as a false prophet for their cause.

"American Crisis," in part, mourns the loss of truth as a consequence of the proliferation of social media. "Wake up every day to see a nation in flames, we click and we tweet and we spread these tales of blame." But the song also marvels at how history repeats, invoking the AIDS pandemic and ACT UP ("Silence = Death") in a song that observes how the current administration has gone to great lengths to roll back Obama-era rights for the LGBTQ community. "I never thought I'd see this bullshit again," Mould sings, pulling no punches. "To come of age in the '80s was bad enough, we were marginalized and demonized, I watched a lot of my generation die." The cause of the current American crisis? Mould lays the blame directly: "the Evangelical ISIS."

The pacing of the album is breathless, to be sure. But Mould throws in some slight sonic shifts that alleviate the breakneck pace of most of these songs. The rhythm section punctuates the crunchy guitars of "Baby Needs a Cookie," moving with a bit of swagger like the Rolling Stones a la Pearl Jam. The R.E.M.-ish "Leather Dreams" comes later in the album, a mid-tempo tune that feels comparatively slower following a series of brash rockers.

Mould has described the album as "ready for the stage." That's an apt description, as the music and messaging are perfectly in sync and certainly built to be bashed out by a live band. By not only placing himself in the headspace of his youth in Hüsker Dü, Mould's recollection of being a closeted gay kid who didn't speak out enough at that time, when the Reagan administration intentionally ditched science — and public health and safety — by scapegoating the gay community for HIV/AIDS. This is particularly striking, given that Mould has never seemed afraid to speak out. But such self-reflection informs his priorities, resulting in rock with an undeniable sense of urgency.

"Blue Hearts"
by Bob Mould
$12.98 (CD) and $19.98 (vinyl)
Merge Records

Kevin Schattenkirk is an ethnomusicologist and pop music aficionado.

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