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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

New Day Rising

Bob Mould makes peace with the past

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For anyone who still associates Bob Mould with Midwestern punk, the cover of his latest solo album, District Line, may come as quite an eye-opener. The art focuses entirely on the sights of Washington, D.C., with allusions to the city’s color-coded Metro subway lines and a photograph of one of the never-ending escalators that service this underground transit system.

Such aesthetic decisions, which Mould describes as “a nod to my almost six-year hometown,” immediately make clear the impact that living in the nation’s capital has had on Mould and his art. This doesn’t mean that District Line is filled with political rants aimed at those living and working in Mould’s back yard (though Mould remains civically responsible: Charmingly, he apologized for delaying this interview because he had spent the early morning voting in the D.C. presidential primary).

Instead, it seems that Mould’s time in Washington has given him the security and the support needed to fully explore the nuances of his songwriting. Commenting on the songs that make up District Line, Mould says, “There’s a coherency there, and a broader emotional base as well,” developments that the ex-Hsker D frontman is quick to attribute to his unhurried life in Washington. Mould explains that many of the ideas for District Line came to him while he leisurely walked through “a 40-square block area of D.C.” The album’s songs sound both well planned and well executed. Overall, District Line displays a sense of clarity that suits Mould well.

Yet Mould’s newfound stability shouldn’t be confused with a desire for artistic safety. Mould’s biting guitar tracks still hit hard, and his lyrics continue to confront the dark side of human relationships. If anything, the songs on District Line take Mould’s standard self-flagellation to a new level, with the last verse of “Again and Again” portraying a narrator seemingly on the verge of suicide: “I took the bullets from the carport, tossed them in my backpack/ Placed a set of keys inside the grill/ I left the title to the house inside the piano bench/ And my lawyer’s got the will.”

Despite the grim nature of such lyrics, Mould assures me that the process of vetting his darkest emotions remains a key component to maintaining his mental health. “I’ve been through a lot,” Mould says, and the act of writing about his failed relationships is instrumental in “building up a sense of resiliency” that allows him to move on.

“I’m very content with my life right now,” Mould concludes, and one gets the sense that he approaches his songs as a form of therapy. Once his emotions are well documented, he can begin making peace with them. 

Such a mind-set also seems to inform Mould’s position on his awe-inspiring back catalog. “For many years, I didn’t tamper with the old songbook,” Mould explains. “I’m not sure if it was out of fear of what might happen, or what it might bring up, or out of reverence for the people I created those songs with.”

Yet in finally allowing himself to revisit songs he hadn’t played live for years, it appears that Mould has begun the process of reclaiming a vital portion of his life, a piece of his own personal history that he had once forced himself to forget.

It’s fascinating to hear Mould discuss his older work. “‘Celebrated Summer’ will always work for me,” he notes. “It’s something of a timeless story.” He seems genuinely thankful that his songs—no matter from what era in his career—continue to touch people. This refreshing humility undoubtedly informs Mould’s generosity toward his fans, giving them a chance to hear the songs that have provided the soundtrack for a variety of their own life-defining moments.

“I see no reason not to revisit songs that mean so much to other people,” Mould says. “What’s it really cost me?” Based upon the quality of songs on District Line, it hasn’t cost Mould a dime. If anything, it appears that the process of coming to terms with his past has allowed Mould to get back in touch with his artistic strengths.

The Bob Mould Band headlines an 8 p.m. show at Shank Hall on Thursday, March 6.