Artist: Bob Mould
Album: Beauty & Ruin
Label: Merge Records / Cargo Records
Bob Mould’s new album Beauty & Ruin may very well be the most epic emotional roller coaster ever pressed into 36 minutes.
Well into his fourth decade as a singer-songwriter, Mould is as relevant, ferocious, and poignant as he has ever been on the compact epic that is Beauty & Ruin. Instead of sitting idle and going quiet, Bob chooses to confront head-on and plow through the psychic turbulence that comes with this stage of life. Much of Beauty & Ruin deals with the passing of Mould’s father in October 2012, Bob’s struggle to come to terms with it, himself, and his own identity and legacy, and repercussions of all of the above on his ongoing relationships in the land of the living. Beauty & Ruin is a twelve-track journey of loss, reflection, conciliation, and coming through the other side. Beauty & Ruin is a challenging work of raw beauty—and may well be Bob Mould’s finest work since his 1989 solo debut, Workbook.
Bob Mould’s journey as singer-songwriter, guitarist, author, DJ, and all-around MVP began in 1979 with the formation of Hüsker Dü. In 1988, Mould began the first part of a solo career producing the aforementioned Workbook and the heavy Black Sheets of Rain. In 1992, Bob gave the world Sugar, a reimagined power trio that toured the globe and produced two albums and an EP: Copper Blue, Beaster, and File Under: Easy Listening. From these releases came a cache of songs—“Helpless,” “Hoover Dam,” “If I Can’t Change Your Mind,” “Your Favorite Thing”—that remain staples of Bob’s live shows to this day.
Throughout the decades, Mould has consistently recorded, toured, and perfected his craft(s). In fall 2012, Bob gave the world Silver Age, his debut album for Merge Records and the first to feature current bandmates Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster. The subsequent touring covered four continents, ending in October 2013 in South America. Beauty & Ruin is in large part the sound of this band, on the road relentlessly, congealing into the tightest unit to surround Bob in his storied career. In other words, a real band. Bob remarks, “The new album plays to our strengths as a three-piece. Jon, Jason, and I have been making music together for six years. During that time, we’ve identified and built upon the band’s strong suits.”
Two days after returning from South America, the trio reconvened in Chicago to begin the recording of Beauty & Ruin. As bassist Jason Narducy (also of Split Single) puts it, “After 13 months on four continents, making this album was a much faster process. We hit the ground running. Obviously, this album is Bob’s vision, but he was more open to our input. The three of us went into the studio, learning, shaping, and playing these new songs together. I was like a kid in a candy store. This band is a fantastic situation.”
The October 2013 session at Steve Albini’s famed studio complex Electrical Audio consisted of nine days of band tracking and five days of layering guitars. The following month, Bob returned to Different Fur Studios in his hometown of San Francisco to finish lyrics for six songs, add vocals, and mix the album.
The album’s opener “Low Season” is Sturm und Drang that “doesn’t lead with an easy hand.” A clash of thunderous noise signals one of the first striking juxtapositions of Beauty & Ruin—especially its climactic passage where organ strains expose the song’s stark clouds and iced-over soil to a wash of sonic technicolor—all anchored by Mould’s murky refrain:
Low season turn the sunlight down
No reason left to stay around
Low season in the frozen ground
“Little Glass Pill” is one of Bob’s heaviest, fastest songs since Hüsker Dü’s “New Day Rising.” The lyrics seemingly peer into self-examination through technology and how the window into the world we immerse in online is a mirror of sorts.
Take this and you’ll find out what the future is
Swallowing a little glass pill
It’s a window and a mirror
It’s a view within the fear
The first single “I Don’t Know You Anymore” is an alloy of Sugar’s Copper Blue and Bob’s previous album Silver Age. Peeking at sonic sunshine, it’s now classic Bob Mould reveling in his wheelhouse. As Bob explains, “I went back to what I know best: words that describe the end of something/something negative in sharp contrast to traditional bright pop melodies, while incorporating various objects and actions of the analog age to tell an allegorical story. Some folks may not even know what some of those objects are. People are queuing up like we used to do for new music, but now they’re doing it for the newest smartphone.”
Wurster, the journeyman who plays in several bands (Superchunk, The Mountain Goats), says of the sessions: “We were all in shape. We had been playing so long, and we know each other’s movements and accents.” Jon finds it interesting that Beauty & Ruin has “songs that are so fast, so kind of Everything Falls Apart-era Bob,” referring to the 1982 LP where Bob’s trademark musical palette first began to take focus.
Fitness is mandatory on a track like “Kid With Crooked Face” as it begins with Wurster’s count-off and goes into classic scree and thrash, which Bob admits “sounds like me… a long time ago.” Hardcore speed and wall of guitars reflect the meaning of the song. “That one’s literal. When I used to look at my early press photos, I never liked them. My face always looked crooked to me,” Mould laughs.
“It fell out of my head one morning” is how Bob explains “Nemeses Are Laughing.” The song begins with a melancholy doo-wop, then kicks the ball over the roof. Bob offers little elaboration beyond “It’s probably my favorite on the album. One of the trippiest songs I’ve ever written. I honestly don’t know where this song came from, but it’s a high point for me as far as composition.”
Song number six on Beauty & Ruin is “The War.” Simply put: “The War,” with its triumphant fanfare and searing pace, is about Bob’s battles with life and death.
Proudly he says, “The music for ‘The War’ dumped out in the studio on my 53rd birthday. It had been exactly 12 months and nine days since my father died and I had been out on the road, celebrating every night and not fully processing the loss, the grief, and the remainder of my time on this planet. I had these words—memories of my dad who gave me life through music, thoughts of friends and loved ones who are contending with illness, how we attempt to reconcile the lives we lead and the legacies we leave—and what you hear on this album is the moment when the melodies, chord progressions, and song structure appeared. It was completed there and then. It’s the first time in years that I’ve thrown one together, on the spot, in the ‘big studio.’ It was fitting because if I was going to write one song, it would be ‘The War.’ It’s the centerpiece of the album. The placement of ‘The War’ at the end of Side One is no accident.”
Beauty & Ruin (and Silver Age) engineer Beau Sorenson says, “I’ve never worked with anyone that puts as much thought into sequencing an album as he does: while the order of songs may shift and rearrange through the process, Bob is considering the track order before recording begins. He’s always trying to ensure the story is being told correctly.”
Bob: “I’ve spent my life listening to complete albums filled with epic stories and perfectly constructed narratives. There was nothing missing from or unnecessary on Beatles and Who albums. It’s a lost art—or at least it was for a while. I really believe it’s coming back.”
The plinky melodic tone of “Forgiveness” opens Side Two of Beauty & Ruin as if it were the second act of a play. Bob offers, “This is where the fog lifts and the conciliation truly begins. In literal terms, it’s a song about that point in any type of relationship when you need to take a break—with a nod to the old adage: it’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”
“Hey Mr. Grey” finds Bob fully embracing a caricature of himself as the old man on the lawn, shaking his fist at those neighborhood scamps in his yard. Mould’s signature lead guitar shreds angst over the breakneck pace of the song. His neighbors—Mr. Blue, the heartbroken fool, and Mr. Green, the envious—are only upstaged by “Mr. White, the one-percent wealthy man.” Bob, using a lyric tactic of past albums, even gives a nod to Minneapolis scenesters The Replacements in the line “kids don’t follow, kids don’t lead, kids go hand in hand.”
“Fire in the City” features Bob’s trademark rising and ringing guitar line. The song “speaks to the concepts of home, stability, and permanence—ideas we build our lives upon. We trust the ground beneath us is firm, but we also know—and in some ways deny—that anything is possible. This song is the soundtrack to the moment you realize everything’s going up in flames.”
It’s no coincidence that the writing for these songs was done in a much different way than previous albums: Bob wrote every song standing up as he would/will deliver these songs live. “I started sitting while writing in 1988, which affected a more delicate and measured style. Your diaphragm is in a different place when standing and delivering, your body is fully engaged and ready for action, and that’s what you’re hearing on this album.”
His diaphragm is in a whole different universe on “Tomorrow Morning,” which was compelled by his friend Dave Grohl remarking, “You’ve got the loudest voice I’ve ever heard.” The Foo Fighters’ lead vocalist couldn’t be more correct. Bob roars 747-style, with ferocious optimism only egged on further by the ratatat of Wurster and Narducy.
“Let the Beauty Be” is the second to last song that according to Bob “feels like an album closer. It ends on an inspirational note—even as I realize later that I’m rhyming ideas like ‘living on the edge of a knife’ and ‘maybe this could be the time of your life’—though it does sound nice when I’m singing them!”
But “Fix It” is the epilogue that clears the shelves of any doubt that things will indeed be quiet or go quietly. After millions of miles, hundreds of songs, encores in all cities the world over, Bob looks at everything with an embattled positivity. Bob says, “It’s like an encore, to come back and just pummel people. Lyrically, it reprises and summarizes the main themes, going full circle from the dark reflection of ‘Low Season’ to the lyric about yelling ‘into a paper cone while pounding on a piece of wood and wires.’ The constants: I sing and play guitar. I tell stories using words and music. That’s what I do.”
Beauty & Ruin is a product of a survivor who refuses to give up, thrives through his work, and subsequently embraces the many changes around and within himself. Bob smartly declares the album as “yet another bonus round, and I am very grateful.”
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