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Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008

Bob Mould

District Line (Granary Music/Anti-)

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Even when Bob Mould was a young punk fronting Hsker D during the 1980s, he grasped that mature intelligence and loud electric guitars could forge a near-seamless partnership. Like Pete Townshend and Richard Thompson—his closest artistic forefathers—he hasn’t turned away from the knowledge, welcome and unwelcome, that age can bring.

On District Line, the unwelcome knowledge is that growing older is no guarantee, where the heart is concerned, of growing wiser. The welcome knowledge is that Mould can still crank pain through amplifiers and catalyze it into something that can feel like catharsis.

That’s where the loud electric guitars come in, of course. Mould opens District Line with “Stupid Now,” which simmers in the verses and catches fire in the choruses, with his nasal voice sounding angrily resigned, if not outright defeated, from its very first exhalation.

Catharsis, however, comes in many forms, and Mould has explored quite a few of them in his solo career. If that’s resulted in uneven efforts—such as 1998’s The Last Dog and Pony Show, announced at the time as his last “rock” record, or 2002’s Modulate, an assimilation of ultramodern technology and instrumentation—many of his previous, restive explorations find fuller expression on District Line. “Shelter Me,” for example, frames Mould in an accomplished dance-floor box of computerized beats and beeps, while “Old Highs, New Lows” lays his recent interest in the vocoder inside a reflectively glistening ballad, and “Return to Dust” blends bitterly swirling rock with lucid acoustic-guitar passages that regather his energies.

For all its variety, District Line is a remarkably consistent album because of how regularly each song hits its mark. Even when Mould revisits an earlier era and closes with the ruminative “Walls in Time”—a song he wrote for, but did not include on, 1989’s Workbook—he connects it securely to the rest of the disc. He also connects the 47-year-old Bob Mould to the young punk and discovers that they have a lot to tell each other.