Review- Bob Mould- Patch the Sky (2016) Merge Records

There are some musicians who get away with doing the same things over and over to the same acclaim. Bob Mould just isn’t one of these people. He isn’t exactly shunning his place in modern rock, and we know what the energy of the trio who blasted through 2012’s Silver Age and 2014’s Beauty and Ruin are capable of, but this isn’t a rock-by-numbers instalment to be dropped off every two years- it is something more than that. This is much less of a collection of quick and easy songs as a really well thought out album, this is a record, meant to be listened to from top to bottom. It’s a relief that Mould himself takes that approach, as it would be a travesty if an album was put together this well by accident. I mean, I managed to get to “Losing Time”- the eleventh track before realising the album was nearly over, and just how much music had been compressed into the past half-hour.

In almost every case, it sounds exceptionally pretentious to refer to a straight-up rock album as a body of work or a thing to listen to from beginning to end, and it would wrong to do that. It’s not that one track props up another or that I’m going to paint this as a Floydian symphony- this is just a really well put together set of songs, the album flows so nicely. There isn’t a song on here which couldn’t work as a single, but their strength is even greater when you have for example the trance of the tense yet melodic “Losing Sleep” being broken with that flurry of speed and lightning which we have come to expect from Bob Mould- the shifts in gear only make the loud louder, and the comparatively quieter part of the music even more of a reprieve. These contrasts make it utterly impossible to call Mould a one trick pony as Uncut described him as, unless making loud rock in a band has really always been that one dimensional, and all musicians should just pack up and go home because it’s already all been done. In my opinion, this album overdelivers- it is not just “good considering it’s a loud rock album.” Sure, you can tell it’s a Bob Mould album, and all his hallmarks are proudly on display, but the quality of the lyrics, the effort that went into filing each song into a sharp point are enough to justify each song’s place on the album.

It certainly rewards sitting down with the rather fittingly minimalistic lyrics poster that comes with the album, or at least having a read of what’s being said as what at times can only be described as a torrent gives you a whistle-stop tour of what Mould and his co-conspirators are capable of. The lyrics can be seen as either standard fare from a former frontman of Husker Du and Sugar, or they can be seen as a snapshot into the formidable writing abilities of Bob Mould. The lyrics aren’t exactly all flowers (“Piss sticks” anyone?), but they feel sincere, and paint their picture vividly. They swirl around, and never dwell for too long, it’s a lighter feel than you might expect, but in and amongst the pattering of images and questions fluttering past, perhaps as Mould says in the opener “Voices in my Head,” there might be some truth within the noise.

This album feels a lot like a sampler or a calling card, a collection of Mould’s considerable talents and styles- frustratingly so at times. Don’t get me wrong, there is depth galore to this album, it’s just that the flashes of things leave me wanting even more. Pray for Rain is the embodiment of this- there is so much crammed into three minutes and twenty seconds, the 10 second hint at a guitar solo which would have been a Dinosaur Jr solo the length of this entire song, and the whirling swirl would have been an entire chapter on a My Bloody Valentine sonic adventure. The thing that surprised me is that these nods and flashes of genius are something some bands clamour for over an entire album.

This is an album which won’t appeal to everyone- the speed and sheer energy will turn a lot of people away, but for those people still listening, there is a lot to be taken from this album. Rolling Stone’s review got a lot right about this album, but their description of the more downtempo “Black Confetti” as a Drone Metal March was genuinely amusing. For reference, THIS is drone metal, and reading that made me want to make a cup of tea, take a sip, and to spit it out. I’d love to read what variety of metal any album by Black Flag would be dubbed if they’d bothered to review one when they first came out. This isn’t the heaviest album, and it isn’t trying to set a new land speed record, but Mould makes no bones about the fact he has far from forgotten how convey that urgency and sheer energy which he is best known for.

Speed and fury aside, this album offers more than adrenaline- this isn’t just a straight up slog, and there is some real subtlety to the softer tracks such as the closer “Monument”. The chimey guitar just gently washing over the fuzz, complement the vocals, which deservedly are given their place at the forefront here. If you compare it to “Daddy’s Favourite,” a vibrant stomper that oozes confidence, and is one of the few points on the album in which Mould seems to be openly comfortable with enjoying the band dynamic, and you can’t really blame him, Wurster and Narducy have again served him proud, elevating the song from what could be a dour introspection (“Everything was so hellish in my head, ticklish with pain”), injecting a liberal dose of fun, almost reminding you that Mould is still indeed searching for some light in amongst the clouds which so often populate his lyrics. In an odd way, it is actually quite life affirming- this is someone who has darkness seemingly embedded into his very lyrical fibre, and I have to agree with Jennifer Kelly’s review in Dusted Magazine, she describes Mould as revelling in the “wreckage” being described throughout this album, and that description is spot on.

However, the actual execution of this wreckage what makes the whole thing special, and the for the most part the lyrics toe the line between directness and metaphor. There isn’t any mincing of words, but Mould is tasteful in his delivery. It’s the kind of fine line which Ian Curtis toed so well on tracks like “Disorder,” and “Candidate”, where there is a blunt force to the lyrics, but you can tell Mould is in full command of his craft. It isn’t so bleak as to become a parody of himself- whilst it’s familiar ground this feels like another chapter rather than someone trying to rehash something that has worked in the past. Mould himself gave a good idea on what to expect with “more death, relationships ending, life getting shorter” being listed the as things which influenced the writing of these songs. He isn’t phoning in these lyrics, they are coming from events going on around him, and they are masterfully woven to prevent the whole thing becoming uncomfortable.

This is critical to the album working, as subject matter such as relationship breakdowns, nightmares, and struggling to find the light others easily find in their lives can easily wear thin- it is undoubtedly heavy subject matter, and definitely requires a careful hand to avoid wearing the listener down to apathy. This album is far from a war of attrition, and it has the odd quality of being genuinely a fun journey throughout. I don’t know if it’s the breakneck speed with which the album thunders through, which prevent the album getting mired, like how a bike keeps its balance through sheer momentum, but this is an album which is enough of a rush to warrant many listens just to decipher everything that’s going on.

Yet this is not an artsy effort, and no bones are made about the fact that this album is made to be played loud, and would sound fantastic in a live setting. Mould is certainly painting in broad strokes, and it works for the large part. Could there be a bit more variety? Definitely, especially taking into account his forays into electronic music with 2002’s “Modulate,” and his stints as a DJ for the last decade or more. The grainy outro to “Pray for Rain” lets this possibility slip, and it is almost tantalising that there is a so much more that could have been said, that there must have been a cutoff where these little diversions had to be pruned in favour of what Mould wanted the album to do. Personally, I’d have loved the indulgence of a few more snippets or a track in that vein, I know that it was so possible for Mould to go to town on this album- he has spoken about how he took six months away from the outside world, and with that amount of time taken to deliberate the writing, there was a chance for this album to be much less an album as much as a catalogue.

However, as a whole, the album works well, and it is unfair to hold his other talents against him- by that logic, Dave Grohl should still be behind a kit. Also, part of this album’s story is just how much you can do with guitars, bass, drums and their voice- no two songs sound the same, and that is easier said than done. In Pitchfork’s review, T. Cole Rachel levelled the criticism that the music isn’t breaking new ground, and there is some truth to that, but he undermines himself by saying that the best parts of the album are the parts where Mould has regressed back to the blunt-force of his music in 1986. I actually would agree if it wasn’t for the angle he’s taken- it’s like complaining that Hendrix sometimes turns the fuzz off, but when it is back on again complaining that it’s stale and should have been played on bagpipes.

It would be daft for Bob Mould not to play to the strengths of the rock trio he has at his disposal, and the group deliver the goods very well. One of the most pronounced examples of the trio being put to its best use is “Losing Sleep,” where all of the parts of this three piece outfit are shined up to their absolute best. The bass on this track is just so catchy, and everything interlocks so nicely, and that’s not to mention the delicious jangling of guitar which would make Pete Buck blush. Anything is possible in the studio, but something tells me that his trip to Steve Albini’s analogue-centric Electric Audio is an indicator that this isn’t an album peppered with auto-tuning or dragged into time on a computer. This band is tight, as one might expect from this lineup, who have been touring and recording as a unit since 2012’s “Silver Age.” Throughout this album, there is a definite energy, which carries things along without any signs of stopping, and these points where the chemistry between Mould, Wurster, and Narducy is allowed to finally shine through are truly a treat.

There are of course parts where the lyrics serve as a vehicle as opposed to the music driving things along. These parts in isolation would be a slog, but they are short, and only serve to make what comes next that much more of a relief. “Lucifer and God” is almost definitely the best example of this, as the torrent of chords, and relentless wall of sound around them just sounds straight up bummed out. The guitar compared to the last song even has this deflated feeling to it, it’s kind of just there ticking over, almost a self-contained soundscape to put the words to. It’s hardly a funeral dirge, and still goes at a pace most bands would consider respectable, but it is the difference between tar and water. Still, an odd place to start off your second side of an album- it definitely sets off the more musically adventurous side to “Patch the Sky”, with the two shortest tracks, and “Monument,” which is by far the longest, clocking in at over five minutes. This track I think caps off exactly what this album is about- it is a tour-de-force at times, but is it nothing if not versatile.

This album is worth a listen if Mould’s breakneck speed, catchy hooks, and craftsman-like lyricism appeal to you even slightly, and if you haven’t experienced his music before, I implore you to at least give “Patch the Sky” a spin. It’s not straight up rock, and it most certainly does get loud and fast, but nothing louder than what Foo Fighters managed to sneak onto radio with “Wasting Light”. I wasn’t ready for it to be this much fun, or to have so much to it- listening to Husker Du hadn’t prepared me for the versatility of the record, although perhaps the strength of his material in previous outfit Sugar should have. These sorts of solo records have a real risk attached to them, as there is always that possibility of them becoming a self-indulgent mush. This album in my opinion veers more towards the other direction, where it is almost a shame that there is so much energy, momentum, and snapshots into other avenues Bob Mould has his foot in the door with. As Eric Risch (pop matters) rightly says, Bob Mould is looking ahead, and it is certainly not the case that he’s stuck in in the lore of 80s hardcore- emphatically, the music is being drawn somewhere unmistakably his as opposed to any one band or style he’s been engaged with.

I’d have loved extended versions of these songs, as those shoots on the branches all were compelling enough to merit further listening, but of course Mould is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t. It’s such a fine line to tread, and Mould has always tended to value conciseness above lengthy wig-outs. I just hope that he didn’t think these songs would outstay their welcome, as they fly by, and the attention he has given to them certainly is plenty to ensure they are far from doing do. This album has been a treat throughout, but it is certainly the case that this isn’t a watered down sugar-fest (no pun intended), as Julian Marszalek noted in his review in The Quietus, this record isn’t one you’ll enjoy if you just want to pop your headphones on and sing along to, but damn is it rewarding if you give it a chance. It’s not exactly avant-garde, it is straight up rock, it’s got depth, great choruses and huge highlights, and indeed “Patch the Sky” is a highlight to Bob Mould’s latest resurgence.

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