Life and Times
3 out of 5 stars
Bob Mould has built his career on confessional songwriting. His distortion-washed production and bitter lyrics — most notably as a member of legendary punk band Hüsker Dü — have inspired countless alt-rockers.
Life and Times, Mould’s newest release following last year’s inspired District Line, has the alt-rock pioneer exploring safer territory in adult alternative pop, a genre traditionally ascribed to bands like Gin Blossoms or Counting Crows. Fortunately, Mould gives the genre his own moody spin, burying the vocals and adding his trademark layers of distortion to the songs. His melodies also carry just enough sugar to potentially bring his music to the speakers of your local department store. Just don’t expect those Dü-faithful to be jumping on board with this album.
Mould has had much to draw from in his 30-year solo career, and it’s no surprise that he takes a moment in Life and Times to sit and reflect. Now pushing 50, Mould seems to be revisiting themes from earlier in his life. His beginnings as a closeted homosexual in the early 1980s Minneapolis underground scene provide plenty of material for dour songwriting.
The album-opening title track begins with an ominously low-tuned guitar — a steely acoustic-electric that is prominent in nearly every song. The opening riff would fit on any Staind or Tool record. The chorus ditches post-grunge for Mould’s brand of moody power-pop, and the result is a formidable kickoff to an album that continuously moves between both aesthetics.
“The Breach” comes next, with a swift and sweeping guitar accompanying Mould’s melancholy vocals in this solid mid-tempo gloom-rocker. The late-night swooning of “City Lights (Day Go By)” is even sweeter. It kicks the tempo up a notch as if to emulate Mould’s happiest moments, focusing on the beauty of urban nights instead of his own problems.
Mould’s lyrics focus mainly on the turbulent relationships of his past. In his songs, he tries to express the torture of separation and the confusion that can come with intimacy. “Bad Blood Better” begins with synthesized strings and cringe-worthy lyrics describing a somewhat macabre morning-after. Mould’s attempt at intimacy is thwarted by his use of inorganic sounds — the electric sheen coating each instrument creates an artificiality that belies his personal storytelling.
“I’m Sorry Baby, But You Can’t Stand in My Light Anymore” is a slower pop ballad truly worthy of the Adam Duritz treatment; the slowly ascending chorus and jangly guitars sound like everything the Counting Crows have ever released. Oddly enough, it’s one of Mould’s most poignant tracks. The radio-rock arrangements are overblown just enough to give his emotional delivery a surprisingly authentic feel.
As a whole, the album finds striking similarities with many post-grunge or alt-rock bands whose sounds have fallen out of favor in the past 10 years (and for good reason). Life and Times could have been released in 1999 and it would have fit right in with the scene. And while the album doesn’t have the same balls-to-the-wall fervor as his records with Hüsker Dü, Life and Times succeeds in reaffirming Mould as one of the great songwriters to emerge from the American underground.