As Major League Baseball teams gather in Florida and Arizona for the annual jerk-off session known as spring training, let’s take this opportunity to look at the Sub Pop roster through the lens of our national pastime.
Sub Pop is the Oakland A’s of the indie-rock world, a franchise that rose to prominence in the late ’80s on the strength of powerful sluggers such as Soundgarden and, of course, Nirvana, whose Hall of Fame career was cut short due to head injury. Since then the team has occasionally fallen on hard times, largely due to poor scouting (who was responsible for signing the Evil Tambourines?), but all in all has remained a winning franchise despite the hardship of competing in a small market. The 2006 club features emerging youngsters such as the Elected and Jennifer Gentle, in addition to superstars such as Low, Iron and Wine, and the Postal Service (who will never hit for power).
And then there’s Mudhoney, the deans of the clubhouse. Wily veterans with perpetually dirty uniforms and cheeks chock full of tobacco, Mudhoney has persevered long after most of its peers — icons of another era — retired amidst allegations of drug abuse and in-fighting. What the band lost in speed it makes up for in hustle and smarts, and it’s a joy to watch Mudhoney play.
Under a Billion Suns is Mudhoney’s eighth album, its first since 2002’s Since We’ve Become Translucent. The band’s sound (you know, “grunge”) has remained more or less the same since its 1988 debut, so to make comparisons is to reach into a hat and pull out the same tired Stooges, MC5, Black Sabbath and Sonics signifiers. Sure, the addition of horns to several tracks adds a slightly polished, soulful gloss to the proceedings, and there’s more psychedelia and less rawk than there was in the early days, but this is Mudhoney: chugging guitars, a furious, rock-solid rhythm section and, above all, the acerbic high-end wail of Mark Arm.
The advance word on Under a Billion Suns, which critics seem to be parroting as if it were mandatory, is that Mudhoney has gone political. Uh, yeah, I guess, if a lyric about the world being “run by small-minded arrogant fools” and a song called “Hard-on for War” means that Mudhoney is “political.” We live in ugly times, perhaps the ugliest of Mudhoney’s career, and that is certainly manifesting itself in the lyrics. But Steve Earle this is not. The aforementioned “Hard-on for War,” which rides a Nebula-on-Qualuudes groove into stoner-rock ecstasy, is sarcastic and subversive, not shrill and didactic. “Empty Shells” is about the band’s old age and lack of vitality, not spent bullets.
And that is the dominant theme of this album, if there is one: Mudhoney’s place in the world, as a band and as middle-aged men. The lyric “I was born on an air force base/in 1962” kicks off the record, lest anyone forget that these guys are fucking old. “A Brief Celebration of Indifference” is just that, a tossed-off, tongue-in-cheek instrumental nod to their glory days. “On the Move” posits that the band is “so far outside, we’re all the way inside,” and “In Search Of” finds Mark and the boys cast adrift in a wind-swept landscape, the lone survivors in a world that killed all their peers.
And then the record ends with “Blindspots,” a reminder that the members of Mudhoney never lost the ability to write anthems, even if the rest of the world no longer cares to define them as such. As horns blare amidst an amps-to-eleven sea of rock cacophony, Arm wails the lyric of the year: “You say everything is beautiful, beautiful in its own way/ You got such such a lovely cancer, darling, eating right through your brain.”
Yes, yes, fuck yes. Don’t tiptoe around it: Under a Billion Suns is a great record, and Mudhoney is one of the best bands in rock ‘n’ roll, period. Without a doubt, the members have put together a hall-of-fame career. But, really, there’s no need to go on about that. Mudhoney is in the here-and-now, still in the starting lineup and showing no signs of slowing down. This band, I hope, will anchor the Sub Pop roster for years to come.
Sub Pop Records Web site