The electronica experimentation may have been drastically toned down in favour of more traditional alternative rock territory, but Bob Mould’s Life And Times is recognisably part of a line that began with 2002’s underrated Modulate.
Despite this there’s no equivalent to either that album’s wholesale ‘dance’ reinvention or the electronica-dominated tunes that peppered subsequent albums like Body Of Song’s Shine Your Light Love Hope or District Line’s Shelter Me. Instead the electronic flourishes are generally confined to the background.
The opening – and title – track of Mould’s eighth solo album proper strips things back to begin with a somewhat battered sounding acoustic guitar before gradually building into a traditional Mould belter.
Next up is The Breach. Another acoustic-driven song that’s a real ‘earworm’ of a tune and Life And Times’ best track (even the ‘Fleetwood Mac’ moment inside the first minute no longer jars). When it hits the ‘Help me find a way out’ chorus, Mould’s home-recording set up really pays dividends, capturing a first-take-best voice cracking with world-weary emotion.
The album’s other standouts immediately follow in City Lights (Days Go By), the nearest the album comes to a post-Modulate sound, and the energetic Mm 17, a vibrant, immediate, rocker, another in post-Modulate tune.
The problem is those are the album’s first four songs and, while by no means down hill all the way from there, Life And Times doesn’t subsequently capture the same highs.
Argos initially comes across as a facsimile of Modulate’s The Receipt, replicating that song’s monotonous bash-bash-bash beat, but with explicit rather than bitter lyrics. But it has unexpectedly been growing on me
Bad Blood Better is claustrophobic, uncomfortable territory, certainly until the “I’m leaving you now” refrain. That precedes a blistering guitar solo that throws a glimmer of hope onto the situation, quickly dashed by the ending “Something tells me/It ain’t changing”. Its not entirely unsuccessful amalgam of Workbook, Black Sheets of Rain, Hubcap sounds is replicated by Wasted World, though that song lingers a little too long in a funereal groove, before picking up.
Spiraling Down accelerates the album’s descent towards the end. An overly trebly guitar – inexplicably reviewed elsewhere as reminiscent of Mould’s great power-punk-pop trio Sugar – and whining refrain (“Nobody writes a song about you/Nobody pays much attention to you”) don’t do the album any favours.
The course continues with I’m Sorry, Baby, But You Can’t Stand In My Light Anymore. To my mind there are few people who can get away with using the word baby in a song title. Bob Mould’s not one of them. The only other time to my recollection that he’s been associated with such a song was Husker Du’s appalling The Baby Song. Even looking beyond the song’s title, and then looking beyond song’s ‘I’m too good for you (baby)’ message, there’s still its plodding pace to contend with. Wrapped up together and they’re just too much.
So to the end and Lifetime. It’s a nice title to bookend Life And Times’ opening title track and quite a departure for Mould. Its nearest relation is perhaps Modulate’s Author’s Lament, which it easily bests, though Lifetime is very nearly a triumph of atmospherics over substance, despite its clearly autobiographical lyrics.
Since the polarising sound of Modulate was unleashed on his fans reviews of the albums that followed have tended to toe the line that they’re a ‘return-to-form’, which has always seemed an unnecessarily backhanded compliment.
Nevertheless so subtle are Life And Times’ electronic touches it was being trailed ahead of its release as such a return-to-form as to provide a companion piece to his solo classic Workbook album. That proved wishful thinking of course, but would have slotted neatly into this year’s 20th anniversary of the release of Workbook, one highpoint in a career that has seen many.
These highpoints present a bit of a problem, because if you don’t already own Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, Sugar’s Beaster or Workbook (and why not I might add) then go buy them first.
But while Life And Times doesn’t equal such exalted company, neither does sit uneasily with it. Ultimately Life And Times is Mould’s strongest and most cohesive album in the last decade.
Full disclosure: My blog’s named after a line from Bob Mould’s Sunset Safety Glass and I own pretty much everything he’s ever released. So, while I hope this is balanced, that’s my starting point.
Live review from April 2009 and live mp3s available at Bradley’s Almanac. The live version of The Breach is particularly recommended.