If anyone in rock music deserves a victory lap, it’s Bob Mould. He’s been busy touring and playing his classic band Sugar’s Copper Blue album live. He’s seen Merge reissue the Sugar catalog in expansive new editions. For that work alone — did I mention he was in Hüsker Dü, too? — Mould has earned a chance to soak it in a bit. But now that he’s capping the year with a new solo record, Silver Age, it’s clear this is no victory lap. Mould is still at the top of his game, and as fiery a rock musician as he ever was.
To listeners Silver Age will feel quite a bit like late-era Hüsker Dü or Sugar, though it also falls in line with his solo work from the early-’90s. You could draw a line to his 1996 eponymous record (one of his finest solo moments) or the pop gems under the slighter darker turns of 1990’s Black Sheets of Rain, even the brighter moments of The Last Dog and Pony Show. Still, to draw these lines is less to call Silver Age a throwback and more to admit that Mould has a timeless rock aesthetic. And yet the new album does update the formula a bit. Guitars here feel a bit lighter than the dense distortion of Sugar records. The melodies, as effortless as ever, have just a hint more room to breath, and a bit more propulsion — driven as they are by bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster.
But despite it being 20 years since Sugar put out Copper Blue, and that Silver Age title, Mould isn’t giving in to age or time on his new record. In fact, he’s lashing out on the biting humor of the title track. “Stupid little kid wanna hate my game,” he spits, coldly dismissive and world weary yet playful, headbanging to his own jam even as he shrugs the kids off. Despite that moment of bad-ass men-among-boys fire, much of Silver Age does have a sense of reminiscing over youth. “The Descent” marks a time before ideals got crushed. It may or may not be autobiographical — “I didn’t want to sing the song that gave the people hope,” he admits at one point — but it’s both a bittersweet look at regret and a clear-eyed acceptance of the present. It’s a quiet sort of wisdom, to regret parts of the past without clinging to them, and the chugging rhythm of the song, and the blistering riffs, show him moving forward with a real sense of purpose.
“Briefest Moment” covers a more complicated and joyful time in youth, when the kid stuck in a stifling town moves on. That things get worse at first may seem predictable, but things change when the narrator “heard a melody so pure” and the song shifts. Mould has meshed the escape story with the influence of music, and that influence holds sway over all these stories, all these songs. If the ambition surrounding music gets turned on its ear on “Star Machine,” the music itself is what Mould keeps returning to. The positivity of “Keep Believing” — and its love of “the sound!” — and the softer space of the contemplative “First Time Joy” pay homage to music and what it can do. Even in the bittersweet nostalgia of the latter tune, with its talk of people left behind, there’s still a bracing feeling that, for a man who has spent a life in the world of music, he’s gotten to where he wants to be.
Silver Age is no schmaltzy album about contentment, but a hard-earned look at a life not only lived in music, but devoted to it. But what makes it one of the finest rock records this year is that it carries none of this emotion like an albatross in its sound. For all its looking back, the songs themselves push forward, with speed and strength. Narducy and Wurster — who, lets be honest, is in the top 5 or working rock drummers — not only compliment Mould’s strong songwriting but amplify it. And Mould himself isn’t letting those guys shoulder the load. The guitars here are quick, slicing, the hooks dig deep and resonate long, the songs — simple though the rhyme schemes may seem — have a subtle knack for texture, for shifts in pace and mood.
In other words, Mould is at the top of his game on Silver Age. It’s easy to get cynical when you hear a musician is going back to an approach that worked before. But with Mould, he’s not going back to rehash, he’s going back to tweak and reinventing, and in doing so he may have tweak and reinvented himself into the best solo album of his career. So go ahead, Bob, take that lap.