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Troubadour on a Treadmill

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Bob Mould

at the Riviera, September 17

By J.R. Jones

"I think this'll be the last time around with a loud electric band," declares Bob Mould in the vainglorious interview that accompanies the first pressing of his new record like a set of instructions. "It's a format that I'm best known for, it seems to be what I've been doing for most of the past 19 years, and I'm getting to that point in my life where it's time to start thinking about other things, whether it's focusing more on the acoustic performances or putting together something else...something besides the loud guitar-rock stuff. I've been doing that for a long time, I really enjoy it, but I don't want it to become a parody of what I'm known to do."

Since Mould delivered his proclamation, fans and critics alike have been dropping rose petals at his feet, lamenting the roaring guitar pop he pioneered in the 80s with Husker Du and refined in the 90s with Sugar. But Mould has been doing this Hamlet routine for four years now, coincident with three of his weakest records. Sugar's slick final album, File Under: Easy Listening (1994), was ushered in with the endlessly repeated story of how Mould had hated the original masters, impulsively erased them, and made the band start over. The forgettable Bob Mould (1996) included the song "I Hate Alternative Rock," a declaration of disgust for a genre he'd helped create a decade earlier. Like Groucho Marx, Mould doesn't want to belong to any club that would have him for a member--the flip side of low self-esteem is often an irrational arrogance. The adulation that's become Mould's postpunk inheritance has muffled the grave self-doubt that once fired his music, and the new The Last Dog and Pony Show is an uninspired sampler of the polished alternapop Mould can turn out in his sleep.

If you haven't heard them lately, dig out Husker Du's trio of classics on the SST label--Zen Arcade, New Day Rising, and Flip Your Wig. As he was traveling up his creative arc, Mould could parlay self-loathing into songs whose anger, desperation, and honesty were truly electrifying: on "Whatever," the climax of the operatic noisefest Zen Arcade, Mould screams, "Mom and Dad, I'm sorry / Mom and Dad, don't worry / I'm not the son you wanted, but what could you expect / I've made my world of happiness to combat your neglect." And as a guitarist he combined the energy of punk, the hugeness of metal, and the sinuous sweep of psychedelia, emerging as the most influential player of the 80s underground.

On Candy Apple Grey, Husker Du's 1986 debut for Warner Brothers, Mould took his first turn as a solo acoustic performer: the moaning despair of his suicide note "Too Far Down" might have been comical if it weren't so obviously genuine. But after the band's acrimonious breakup in 1987, Mould grew by leaps and bounds as a singer-songwriter, exploring acoustic pop on Workbook and plumbing the depths of a gutted relationship on the metallic Black Sheets of Rain. Both directions seemed equally promising, but neither record took the world by storm, and Mould cleaned out his locker at Virgin.

By the time Mould returned with Sugar in 1992, his sound was all over the airwaves: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and the rest all drew on the black sheets of guitar he'd laid down with Husker Du. Copper Blue perfectly fused Mould's acoustic and electric work, and it became a turning point in his career. Older fans rejoiced at the prospect of a Husker-like trio, critics who'd been napping during the SST years embraced the poppy new record, and college radio lionized the suddenly venerable 31-year-old. Sugar's second release (actually recorded during the same sessions as the first) was the unexpectedly ugly Beaster EP, but since then Mould's records have followed the jackpot formula of Copper Blue. Typically they boast one great single--"Your Favorite Thing" on File Under: Easy Listening, "Egoverride" on Bob Mould--but Mould's boxy four-chord progressions (alleviated occasionally by an eight-chord progression based on Copper Blue's "Hoover Dam") have become numbingly familiar.

But with a reputation like his, who needs new ideas? Two years ago his solo acoustic tour sold out a three-night stand at Metro, and the hearty welcome must have strengthened his resolve to become a rock troubadour like his heroes Pete Townshend and Richard Thompson. As an acoustic player Mould can't carry their luggage, but the night I saw him no one seemed to care: seated on a metal folding chair, pounding away gracelessly at a 12-string guitar, he delivered ponderous ballads like "Brasilia Crossed With Trenton" and denuded Sugar and Husker Du favorites between rounds of joyous applause from well-scrubbed twentysomethings.

The same crowd turned out for Mould's last dog and pony show, a 90-minute set of interchangeable tunes from his last two records. His sidemen were solid but uninspired; if any of them did more than glance at him during the set, I missed it. For his part Mould gave it the old college try, galloping around and balancing on one foot like a cow from The Far Side, but the sparks mostly failed to fly. By the second encore the show had devolved into prepackaged angst: after a lugubrious version of Black Sheets of Rain's "Hanging Tree," Mould grabbed the microphone and doubled over, howling like a damaged child as the band left the stage. The crowd roared. Mould trudged off, releasing a final howl into his guitarist's microphone, and stood alone in the wings, his bowed head silhouetted by a single backstage light as he gripped a stairway railing for support, his private pain so thoroughly staged it would have embarrassed Judy Garland.

Then he was back, his big grin vaporizing the previous psychodrama as the band launched into the swinging "Disappointed," also from Black Sheets of Rain: "Well I'm sorry you're disappointed / But times they change and so did I / Standing still and getting nowhere quicker / Well it seems I didn't have to try." At the end of the show, alone again onstage, Mould nodded at the crowd's ovation, sucking up every last ounce of adoration. "Thank you," he said humbly. "Thank you."

We have an unquenchable desire to kill our idols--and the quickest, surest, cruelest way is to smother them with love.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by David Kamba.

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