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Bob Mould Puts the Past in Front of Him

The alt-rock veteran placed yesterday and today in new contexts at First Ave this weekend.

That's Bob Mould all right.
Courtesy of the artist.

Bob Mould was nearly halfway through a 25-song, 90-minute barrage of a set at First Avenue Saturday night before he dipped into the Hüsker Dü catalogue.

The first relic from that bygone era to be exhumed was “Celebrated Summer,” a look back at fading glory days from the premature perspective of your mid-twenties—from days you’d later recall as no less gloried—and a reminder that time reshapes nostalgia as layers of memory accumulate. He followed that with “Hardly Getting Over It,” a song not just about how persistent loss can be but also about what it feels like to first discover that resilience is a myth; by sounding as harrowed as ever 35 years on it proved its emotional truth.

While everyone was surely happy to hear these oldies, Mould had given no one in the room cause to pine for the past. He started the night with four tracks from his 2020 album Blue Hearts, some of most the immediately engaging music of his solo career. Written upon his return to the U.S. from Berlin, the songs capture the shock of leaping into the boiling water whose temperature had been rising all around the rest of us.

These new songs look backward in their own anti-nostalgic way. The first words Mould sang on Saturday night were “When I was a younger man” (from “Next Generation”), the prelude to a litany of regret as stinging as his guitar, which builds up to a chorus of “The world is breaking now.” Then “American Crisis” glanced back pitilessly at the ’80s (“I watched a lot of my generation die”) to compare it to the present, as though to say, if Reagan was the price we had to pay for Zen Arcade, it wasn’t worth it.

Mould’s solo career has its peaks and valleys, as anyone who listens through Distortions, his 24-album boxed retrospective, will be reminded. But while the recorded versions of his songs often merely settle into conventionally attractive modern-rock shapes, they sound as though they’re forming in real time live, less like crafted objects than like forms struggling to coalesce.

Much of that is due to Mould’s full-throated bray, a voice we’ve grown so familiar with it can be hard to recognize how odd the confines of its emotional range remain, how its strained immediacy defies relaxation or contentment but not pleasure. Mould sings less like the band is a fierce wind at his back that he’s harnessing to sail forward than like he’s making himself heard within the din.

Even Mould’s best-wrought songs took a beating Saturday night. Sugar’s “If I Can’t Change Your Mind,” his successful bid for the grunge era alt-rock charts, resolves with the mathematical precision of the best power pop. So naturally, he and his band bludgeoned it from every direction, relentlessly but without malice, the performance less an assault than a stress test, which the object passed, like iron that’s beaten till it glows orange but never softens or bends.

Mould has now been making music with that band, the third great power trio of his career, longer than with either of its predecessors. Like Mould, both drum monster Jon Wurster and steadfast bassist Jason Narducy wore casual uniforms of black T-shirts and jeans. And particularly when they encored with three of the guitarist’s more straightforwardly melodic Hüsker Dü tunes—“Flip Your Wig,” “I Apologize,” and “Makes No Sense at All”—that rhythm section displayed how much they’d learned from Mould’s first band, with Wurster swinging like a motherfucker while nailing those tricky Grant Hart bits and Narducy adding the subtle bass melodies that provide the music’s skeleton.

Mould also dipped back into 1989’s Workbook (“See a Little Light” was the first song of the night to rouse shouts of delighted recognition rather than just general enthusiasm), but most of his material was from the five recent albums he recorded for Merge with his current band. “The Descent” offered an oblique reckoning with his history (“I didn’t want to play the song/That gave people so much hope”), the lovely title track from 2019’s Sunshine Rock was a bona fide love song, and “Siberian Butterfly” rocked catchily enough to earn its slot buffering the Sugar and Hüsker Dü songs later in the set.

Mould is no chatterbox. When he did take a break to address the audience, he brought up the inevitable: his requirement that attendees remain masked throughout the show. In general, the crowd was good about this. (They were lax about his other, less-publicized request not to take video—at one point, Mould kindly but firmly gestured for someone to lower their phone.) Many of the men in the room offered variations on Mould’s aging appearance—baldness, white hair, slight paunch, glasses—though rarely with the vitality of the singer himself, who’s just weeks away from 61.

Though these days his guitar rarely buzzsaws up and out or doubles back with self-dissecting precision, instead grinding alternate melodies within the parameters of the song itself, Mould’s playing remains monumental. And nowhere more so than on the song’s he’s been typically ending his set with on this tour, the Zen Arcade opener “Something I Learned Today,” which he barked as though those lessons had been forgotten and re-studied many times over in the past four decades.

But tonight that thrasher bashed directly into yet another Hüskers song, “New Day Rising,” its single chord change still offering as significant a thrill as James Brown modulating to the bridge after a prolonged funk vamp. When the chanted “new day RI-sing” shifts to the climactic “NEW day rising,” it’s as though shouting it with that new emphasis is a hard-won achievement that couldn’t have happened with out all the repetition that preceded it, an attempt to generate optimism, or at least simulate progress, through sheer force of will. And then it slips back to the initial chant and the process begins again. There’s a lesson in that as well.

Next Generation
American Crisis
Fireball
Forecast of Rain
Password to My Soul
Sinners and Their Repentances
I Don’t Know You Anymore
The Descent
You Say You
See a Little Light
Sunny Love Song
Celebrated Summer
Hardly Getting Over It
The War
Voices in My Head
I Fought
Sunshine Rock
If I Can’t Change Your Mind
Hoover Dam
Siberian Butterfly
Something I Learned Today
New Day Rising

Encore
Flip Your Wig
I Apologize
Makes No Sense at All