It's tough to say which is worse: the sadness that comes from seeing your aging musical heroes sputter and fade away as they cling determinedly to the ideals of creative exploration and artistic relevancy on their own terms; or the sadness (and, oftentimes, disgust) of watching them surrender to nostalgia, trading in on whatever fame they've accrued over the years for the chance to hover at the edges of public consciousness, whether that means going through the greatest-hits motions at state fairs and casinos or making pathetic spectacles of themselves on reality TV shows.
Or calling up the old friends — or foes — and getting the band back together for one more go-round.
Particularly for punk, post-punk, and indie rock icons of the '70s and '80s approaching or having crossed into middle age with floundering solo careers, that last option has proven the most enticing over the past couple of years — as you've undoubtedly noticed, the altrock reunion circuit is more saturated than Keith Richards' liver. And why not? It's easy to cloak a desperate craving for the lost limelight in such noble-sounding guises as “completing unfinished business,” “mending broken relationships,” or “showing the kids how this kinda music is really done.” Heading out with the ol' band for a few months can also be a swell way of getting some free publicity for that solo album that just so happens to be coming out any day now (although I haven't yet seen anyone tripping over himself in a rush to grab Pajo, the first post-Slint-reunion offering from guitarist David Pajo).
And, of course, there's reason numero uno: money. With the Pixies proving just how profitable this reunion business can be, even archnemeses Lou Barlow and J. Mascis were able to bury the hatchet after 15 years and get Dinosaur Jr. out on the road to riches. Paul Westerberg is probably on his knees outside Tommy Stinson's window right now, tearfully begging him to go in on a Replacements reunion with the offer of a 30-70 split (which would still probably make Westy a very wealthy man). But who can blame these folks? Many of 'em have slid from major labels to indie labels to “PayPal me six bucks and I'll mail the damn thing to you myself this afternoon.” At least Frank Black freely admitted the financial motivation behind the Pixies redux in a 2004 interview with the Boston Globe: “We've had this chip in our back pocket for a long time, and it keeps going up in value. We're cashing it in this year.”
Two other altrock legends holding equally valuable chips, however, have so far resisted the urge to cash in. Bob Mould, who'll be 45 in October, stands to make a ridiculous amount of money if he ever decides to reanimate Hüsker Dü, the visionary and wildly influential Minneapolis punk-pop trio he co-founded in 1979 and quit in 1988 amid infamous intraband turmoil. Forty-seven-year-old Paul Weller, meanwhile, would rake in his own not-so-tiny bundle if he chose to re-form the Jam, the beloved, also wildly influential British mod-punk outfit he forged in 1975 and disbanded in 1982, at the height of the group's popularity and much to the consternation of his perplexed bandmates.
Clearly, the stature of both bands has grown exponentially since their demise; aside from the Smiths, Hüsker Dü and the Jam are probably the two groups that altrock fans most want to reunite. So why hasn't it happened? Certainly, all the acrimony involved in both situations has hampered any such possibility. The nearest the Hüskers have come was last October, when Mould and former cohort Grant Hart — with whom Mould's been feuding for the past 17 years — teamed up in polite fashion to play two of their old songs during a benefit concert for cancer-stricken (and now-departed) Soul Asylum bassist Karl Mueller. But any notion of a full-fledged reunion (which would also include bassist and current restaurateur Greg Norton) was quashed afterward, what with Mould downplaying the gig as a one-shot deal done for a special cause and Hart quickly resuming his attacks on Mould in the press. As for the guys in the Jam, they haven't even come that close — from all accounts, Weller has had little to no contact with bassist Bruce Foxton and drummer Rick Buckler over the years, especially after the pair viciously attacked Weller in their 1993 Jam tell-all book, Our Story. In late 2003, Weller was compelled to address persistent rumors that the Jam was planning to reunite in 2004 — he simply called the reports “bollocks.”
Which brings us back to the “sputter and fade away” part. You can certainly make the case that Mould hasn't put out a decent album since Sugar's 1994 swan song, File Under: Easy Listening; whispers of “He's lost it” have been dogging him since 1996's tepid Bob Mould, and his last solo album, 2002's all-electronica affair, Modulate, was about as well-received as an IRS audit. And Weller, quite frankly, hasn't done much better: 1995's Stanley Road was an absolute winner, but since then he's fallen into a bit of a creative rut on a handful of discs, culminating with last year's bore of a covers album, Studio 150.
So here they are, Bob Mould and Paul Weller, at a crossroads in their careers — both hanging on by the skins of their reputations, floating in that nebulous space between relevance and obsolescence, constantly hearing calls to get their old bands back together because they “might as well” — and what do they go and do? Oh, just make their most vital, most satisfying solo albums in years!
Interestingly, both accomplish the feat by offering collections of new songs that kinda play out, stylistically, like career overviews, but ones that don't look too far back. In Mould's case, his new Body of Song predominantly features the guitar-based rock structures upon which he made his name, rather than (thank God) the clubby techno direction in which most everyone thought he was heading. Some of those Modulate textures are evident here: “(Shine Your) Light Love Hope” and “I Am Vision, I Am Sound” both include Cher-/Daft Punk-like vocodered vocals, and Mould's voice is digitally manipulated, albeit to more subtle effect, on several other tracks; there are also a few synth twinkles and snaking melodies that puncture the otherwise guitar-growly shell of “Paralyzed.” The latter, along with the catchy, crunchy “Best Thing,” could have found a happy home on Sugar's Copper Blue, while the bitter lyrical undertones, biting arpeggios, and caustic guitar leads of opener “Circles” mostly recall Mould's second solo album, 1990's Black Sheets of Rain.
The real showstoppers, though, are the reproachful “Underneath Days” — which rides its two chords in hypnotically muscular, shoegazery fashion — and the impeccably crafted, Workbook-worthy semiballad “Days of Rain,” which comes off a bit schmaltzy upon first listen (it's either his almost-too-tender tenor or the cello solo) but gradually reveals itself with future spins to be one of Mould's most melodically perfect pop songs ever. The only obvious nod to Hüsker Dü is “Missing You,” which sounds like something from Warehouse: Songs and Stories (the Hüskers' final album) in its buzz-pop chord progressions and, especially, its vocal harmonies. Unlike on that album, however, Mould sings this song like he wants to be there.
The same holds true for Weller on As Is Now — he truly hasn't sounded this thrilled to be making a record, this in the moment, in ages. “Can't nobody love you/ Like I love you, yeah” is the simple sentiment that first flies from his mouth on the exhilarating lead track, “Blink,” but the lyrics aren't the main attraction here — it's the way Weller's gruff, soulful voice wraps around each syllable with palpable passion and verve, generating as much spine-tingling excitement as the broken-bottle guitar chords and barroom-brawl rhythms that eventually coalesce into melodic mod-glam heaven in the chorus.
It's a hell of a way to kick off an album, and the innards pretty much do justice to the opening thrill. “From the Floorboards Up” slays with a choppy T. Rex riff and hip-shaking drum snaps, and finds a way to fit in a fiery little guitar solo and an echo-flanged, send-and-receive break during its 2-1/2-minute jog, while “Come On/Let's Go” is classic power-pop joy, inducing a grin even before Weller belts, “Sing ya little fuckahs/ Sing like you got no choice.” The album contains no small amount of agrarian Brit-folk — similar to the acoustic excursions Weller took on 1993's Wild Wood and 2000's Heliocentric — but it sounds more inspired here, particularly on “The Start of Forever” (with its sweet, string-and-horn-laden psychedelia nicely complementing Weller's husky quaver) and the striking piano ballad “Pan,” which pushes its dreamy melody and choral effects into Mercury Rev territory, even if Weller's rough-hewn vocals keep everything from flying off into the cosmos.
So Weller and Mould can stand on their own, that much is certain — they don't need no stinkin' reunions to light a fire under their middle-aged asses. But that's not to say they're totally denying fans the opportunity to enjoy the past: Weller's long been known to work plenty of Jam (and Style Council) material into his live set, and Mould — currently touring with a full band that includes Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty — is playing Hüsker Dü and Sugar songs for the first time outside of those groups. And sure, one day either or both may decide to cash in that chip for whatever reason. But I wouldn't bet on it.