Listening to Bob Mould’s music – his more than a dozen solo albums, his releases leading Sugar in the ’90s, and especially the run of six albums he made with Hüsker Dü in the mid-1990s – and you’re likely to come away with the impression that he’s a pretty intense guy. And while that’s not an inaccurate assumption, it takes into consideration only part of the picture. Mould is a thoughtful, incisive lyricist whose songs can address big themes. At his best, Mould has it both ways, and that’s the case with Blue Hearts, his latest album.
Blue Hearts is a collection of topical songs, and the individual titles telegraph that with furious energy: “American Crisis,” “Forecast of Rain,” “Racing to the End.” Against a roaring musical backdrop – courtesy of his guitar plus his longtime rhythm section of bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster – Mould tackles subjects that are at once personal and universal.
Mould has been in the game long enough to develop working methods that make the most of his many strengths. While he may collect ideas for songs while he’s on tour, it’s only when he comes off the road that the real work of songwriting commences.
“When I unpack the suitcase and put all the tour clothes away and go back to normal life,” Mould says, “that’s when the next cycle begins.” One of the first things he does is gather all of his loose musical ideas and thoughts jotted down on “Post-Its, backs of napkins and whatever,” he says. “I put that all in front of me, and I start to observe what I’ve been thinking about.”
More often than not, those thoughts start to coalesce around some central ideas. “And when those themes present themselves, that’s when the writing for an album usually begins,” he says. And Mould’s approach is more organized than one might expect of such a creative individual. “Once I have maybe ten songs, I’ll sequence those as if they’re an album. I’ve got something slated as an opener, and something as the end of Side One,” says Mould, who at age 60, grew up in the era of the vinyl LP.
And he favors quality over quantity, taking aim at the idea that just because a CD can hold 80 minutes of audio, artists should fill all of the available space. He believes that kind of thinking “contributed greatly to the whole Napster mentality: people were being asked to pay $16 for one song plus 70 minutes of filler.” In stark contrast to that approach, Blue Hearts clocks in at under 36 minutes, with no filler. The 14 tracks on Blue Hearts are a tidy set of tunes: only one song (“The Ocean”) breaks the three-minute mark.
“I was definitely going for brevity all the way around on this record,” Mould says, noting that his guiding philosophy for Blue Hearts was “just get in, say what you’ve got to say, and get out; don’t color it up too much with fancy bridges or elaborate intros and outros.” Put even more simply, he says, “Yeah, I was just trying to write two-minute punk rock songs.”
Sequencing 14 of those songs in an order that flows equals an album. “Being born in 1960 and growing up on Rubber Soul and Revolver, that’s how I learned what an album was,” Mould says. “I still believe that [the album] format is the proper one for this specific discipline of music.”
Mould really does design his albums to be listened to start-to-finish. “Blue Hearts starts with a mission statement,” he says. After addressing wildfires, climate change and general disillusionment, opener “Heart on My Sleeve” concludes with these lines: “And we’re going to war / and we’re going to die.”
That plaintive acoustic song “sets a pretty dire stage for what’s to come,” Mould acknowledges. But it all scans, and it all fits together as a cohesive whole. He notes that “the second to last song on the record, ‘Password to My Soul’ was constructed as a way to reiterate everything that had been said prior.” And then Mould closes Blue Hearts with “The Ocean.” That song, he notes, “is another acoustic-ish song in the same key as the first song.”
But while “The Ocean” does open with acoustic guitar textures, by mid-song it turns into a squalling wall of sustained guitar distortion. “That whole symphony of feedback was strictly for my own pleasure,” he laughs. “If anybody else likes it, that’s great.”
There are times when the aural blast of Blue Hearts’ more energetic songs makes the lyrics hard to discern, at least on first listen. “I don’t think I’m trying to get people to have to work harder,” Mould says, noting that he includes a lyric sheet with the album. “But I think the vocal for a song like ‘Fireball’ sits where it should, relative to the energy of the instrumentation.” Mould says that while the thoughts contained in that song’s lyrics are important, the music gets the message across as well. “I want the heat of the guitars and the cymbals to make the point,” he says.
Still, there’s plenty of nuance amid the album’s howling electric instrumental onslaught. The string arrangements featuring the Prague TV Orchestra are as finely wrought as have ever been heard on a Bob Mould record.
As the title of the record’s opener makes plain, with the songs on Blue Hearts, he is writing with his heart on his sleeve. And Mould is aware of the dangers of that approach. “If I write something that’s too personal,” he says, “I’ll give it some time. I’ll think it over. The really ‘interior’ songs, I usually sit with them for a while to make sure they’re okay; I’ll think about all of the fallout that might happen.”
But like any good artist, he breaks his own rules. “’Leather Dreams’ is a perfect example of ‘no filter,’” Mould says with a chuckle. “So sometimes they slip through.” Yet in general, he makes a point of leaving key pieces of the narrative out of a song, allowing the listener to fill those bits in themselves, making the song personal for them. In a way, he suggests, “it’s not about the words of the song, but the song at that moment in their life.”
August Hall, S.F.
Bill Kopp is a contributing writer at SF Weekly. Twitter @the_musoscribe