The Living End
File Under: Easy Listening
One day back in 1986, my friend Jeanne, the leader of a struggling punk band, asked me who I was writing about. When I told her Husker Du, she snapped back, "What could you possibly say about them that hasn't been said before?" I couldn't answer. Her assumption seemed incontestable; a successful band, Husker Du had already been analyzed to death and they couldn't possibly have anything new to say for themselves. Ironically, Bob Mould, the guitarist and one of the two main songwriters in the legendary punk trio, has managed to become one of the few alternative rockers from the pre-Nirvana 80s who still matters in the post-Nirvana 90s. It couldn't have happened if both Mould and alternative music fans hadn't changed their attitudes regarding craft and commercial success, a point illustrated by three recent releases from the three major phases of Mould's career.
At their creative peak, Husker Du combined infectious pop melodies with a high-speed, distorted hardcore sound, creating a wrenching, gorgeous yowl like no one had ever heard before. From one amazing album to another, this tense amalgam of opposing styles produced cathartic gems for both anarchy addicts and pop thrill seekers alike. But by the time I had my little talk with Jeanne, the trio's formal command had become so effortless that the tension seemed finally mastered, subdued, and, perhaps, formulaic. While on tour during the summer of '87 to promote their final album, Warehouse: Songs and Stories, the trio even played songs from the record in exact, mind-numbing sequence, as if to acknowledge their creative stasis. For the naysayers, their sudden breakup the following January was the only logical step left.
But before they called it quits, Husker Du briefly returned to the road to try to work through their creative impasse and develop material for a new album. They introduced a few new numbers into their set on these ten midwest and east coast dates, but mostly they ended up playing songs from every point in their history, almost as if they knew it would be their last hurrah. For me, a Husker Du fan who'd seen every one of their Chicago shows since 1984, this tour offered one of the best concerts I'd seen in my life. Their careening, careerwide performance at the University of Chicago's Mandel Hall felt like a renewed act of communion between the band and the fans. And that was only the opening date. Mould--not a guy given to specious self-promotion--later claimed the tour was one of the best the band ever did.
The recently released The Living End documents that final, triumphant tour. Like any concert album, it pales next to the actual experience. But as a recap of Husker Du's epic career, it's more instructive and exciting than any boxed set could have been. Vividly reconstructed from several dates on the tour taped by their sound man, Lou Giordano, the record has many unexpected sequences in which the meaning of each tune is deepened by its proximity to other songs and by the intensity of the band's seamless, full-throttle execution. It proves the thrill wasn't all high-volume buzz and ringing overtones: this band could play.
The recap of Mould's solo career, Poison Years, offers little more than a skewed picture of an artist in transition. Mould's two albums for Virgin after Husker Du split up--the mostly acoustic Workbook in '89 and the all-electric Black Sheets of Rain in '90--contain some impressive music. But the multitracked vocals, intricately layered guitars, and precisely detailed production came off as labored, removed, and mannered when compared to any Husker Du release. It was at this point that Mould seemed closest to losing the alternative crowd. Poison Years tries to enliven the period by selecting the most sweeping, open-ended cuts and arranging them so they feel like they're performed by a group, not a solo artist with a backup band. The project is awkward, lumping together six cuts from Black Sheets of Rain, two singles, an outtake, four tracks from Workbook, and a live cover of a Richard Thompson song. Its overall logic seems to capitalize on the renewed public attention Mould generated after forming another trio in 1991. As Mould said of its liner notes, "They couldn't mention Sugar fast enough."
Who could blame them? Unlike in his solo efforts, Mould got it right with Sugar. On their 1992 debut album Copper Blue, Mould maintained the high-quality production standards he'd learned at Virgin, but he once again simplified his guitar, allowing bassist David Barbe and drummer Malcolm Travis to speak as equal players. Suddenly, the professionalism that had defeated Husker Du made Sugar's songs sweeter, other times tougher; it was never employed at the expense of the band's collective sound.
On Sugar's new File Under: Easy Listening, Mould takes professionalism one step further to make that rarest of products, a thoroughly mature alternative album. The tunes are often extremely simple--the melodies, riffs, and bass lines could be generic--but they're all rooted by accomplished arrangements and, most notably, striking lyrics. "Granny Cool" is the kind of put-down Mould has been writing for approximately ever but never with this kind of detached humor; "Gee Angel" and "Explode and Make Up" are two more entries in Mould's long list of break-up songs, but they're the most well wrought and compelling of the lot; "Your Favorite Thing," as far as I can tell, is a Bob Mould first--an ecstatic love song.
Both Sugar albums have done well with a brand-new generation of listeners, one almost as comfortable with professionalism and success as Mould. Many of those listeners must consider him the godfather to a new slew of bands manufacturing their own tense blend of pop and punky noise. Mould, however, is also quick to acknowledge the inspiration he gets back from those bands (for example, he happily admits his debt to My Bloody Valentine for the Sugar song called "Gift"). He titled the new album File Under: Easy Listening as a joke on himself, of course, but his young fans quickly picked up on its serendipitous acronym, FUEL, and bandied it about the Internet without so much as a naysaying smirk.