In the panoply of American post-punk rockers, Bob Mould’s name is synonymous with innovation, passion and songcraft.
Mould’s new record, Body of Song (YepRoc) also brings those same words to mind. At its core, Body of Song is a return to the blend of punk and pop that Mould fashioned in the 1980s with Hüsker Dü and in the 1990s with Sugar. Fans of those bands and Mould’s solo work will find that new songs such as “Best Thing,” “Missing You” and “Paralyzed” brim over with the power, ebullience and melody that has been his trademark in more than two decades of music.
Yet as much as Body of Song reaches back to revisit the robust directness of Sugar’s Copper Blue (1992), Beaster (1993) and File Under: Easy Listening (1994) or the stripped-down revelations of Mould’s 1989 solo record Workbook, attentive listeners will find that Mould’s recent explorations in electronica – including 2002’s Modulate – have pushed those familiar sounds into new arenas on songs such as “(Shine Your) Love Light Hope” and “I Am Vision, I Am Sound.”
Indeed, the collision of past and present on Body of Song emphasizes the numerous continuities in Mould’s 20+ year career. It also makes the record’s title – and a forthcoming Mould tour that will showcase material from his entire oeuvre – more than an apt phrase.
“Someone joked that Body of Song is two parts Copper Blue, two parts Workbook, a part Beaster and a part Modulate,” Mould wisecracks.
But all joking aside, Mould observes that Body of Song delivers that most old-fashioned of rock’n’roll pleasures – a cohesive long-playing record that revels in its wholeness and potency.
“Sonically, start to finish,” says Mould, “Body of Song sounds like an album is supposed to sound. Don’t ask me in this day and age why I bother, but I still do. I still think an album should read like a book.”
“This won’t be/ the sound of me/ Looking for some kind of closure.” -- “Best Thing”
All books – and records – have a back story. Bob Mould’s Body of Song is no different in that respect.
In its original incarnation, Body of Song was to be part of a trio of new Mould records released in 2002 – along with Modulate and the deep electronic grooves of LoudBomb. A few tracks were recorded for that version of the record with Sugar bassist David Barbe and Bob Mould Band drummer Matt Hammon – including songs such as “Circles,” “Missing You,” “High Fidelity” and “Gauze of Friendship” which also made the cut for the new release.
Upon reflection, Mould says that he might have been going a record too far, too fast. “I just wanted to give my head a rest,” he says of the decision to temporarily shelve the first version of Body of Song.
Mould spent some time further cultivating his newfound love of club music. Among the fruits of those labors are Mould’s “Blowoff” club nights, co-hosted with Pink Noise remix master Richard Morel. In 2004, however, Mould rediscovered his love for power chords and pop and punk.
“I played a couple shows and started getting back into the guitar,” he says. “And I started writing guitar songs again.”
As he dashed off new songs such as “Days of Rain,” “Always Tomorrow” and “Underneath Days,” Mould pulled Body of Song off the shelf and recast it as a project that would marry old and new in his career.
“It’s a guitar record,” says Mould. “But there’s a good dose of electronics too.” What has changed now, he says, is that those new influences are more assimilated into the whole.
“I was learning a new set of tools,” he says. “I was fascinated by the idea of this new set of sounds. But on Modulate, they were pushed way to the front and the guitars were suppressed. On this record, the tables have been turned a little bit. I found a healthier integration of my guitar sound with an updated production.”
So Mould went to work in the studio, laying down tracks himself and using his newly-acquired mixing skills to push the new songs where he wanted them to go.
“The way I grew up recording is where you do it in one take and it’s live and you do it to analog tape,” he says. “It’s this linear situation that you don’t really interfere with. Now everything I’m doing is so non-linear…I can stretch tempos and lift sections and move them around. The editing process in some ways has become the compositional process.”
Mould says that editing as composition is in evidence throughout Body of Song. “There’s a good amount of time on this record where you hear guitars go by and those are just guitars that are sampled from sketches,” he says. “They’re cut and moved around.”
At various points in his work on Body of Song, Mould also brought in Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty and Garland of Hours cellist to put on finishing touches on the newer material. Through trial and error, Mould finally emerged with the record that he wanted.
“There’s been a start to finish sequence to this record that’s changed a lot,” observes Mould. “I’d pull one song out and put another one in. A lot of 2004 was just that: pulling things out and putting them back in.”
“Who could live with me/ In high fidelity?” -- “High Fidelity”
Individual pieces on Body of Song shift easily between rockers, ballads and club anthems. But what all of the new work possesses is a consistency that is built on ringing clarity and deeply-felt passions.
“I wasn’t spending a lot of time worrying about whether I had put enough unnamable chords in the songs, or if there was enough vague allegory so that people won’t know what it’s about,” says Mould of his new work. “These are songs about love lost, love found, hate lost and found. The simplest of emotions.”
Mould says that the move to what he calls “this totally visceral simple pop stuff” is rooted in his own sense of tranquility. “I’ve been through a lot personally the past couple years,” he observes. “I have a sense of wonder back about life. I’m open to new things, new ideas. Life is getting a bit simpler, so maybe my work is starting to show that.”
That clarity and passion are paired with music that is shot through with vigor and zest, be it the foursquare rock of “Best Thing” and “Missing You” or the anthemic bursts of crunching guitar laid over throbbing club beats on “(Shine Your) Love Light Hope” and “I Am Vision, I Am Sound.”
“It’s just a groove, really,” says Mould of the latter song. “I got lucky with the words. “Between that song and ‘New Day Rising’ (the title track of the classic 1985 Hüsker Dü record) – it’s not such a stretch compositionally.”
Amidst the guitars and grooves, Body of Song is filled with exquisite touches – ranging from the tweaked-up sampled church bells that tumble into a swell of organ on “High Fidelity” to the tug of cello under the surging guitars that close out “Gauze of Friendship.”
Mould also points out that the album’s final track – “Beating Heart the Prize” – is “a very classic Bob closer right up there with ‘Whatever Way the Wind Blows’ (from Workbook) and Sacrifice/Let There Be Peace’ (from 1990’s Black Sheets of Rain).” It’s also a case study in that editing as composition process.
“The front part of that song I stole from Avril Lavigne by accident,” Mould chuckles. “I think Green Day stole it too. A chunk of the song is pitched down two octaves and then sped up triple speed. I just sat there in the studio and kept manipulating it and stretching it until I got that weird cauldrony kind of effect. So I laid that sound underneath and then there are these other little sonic bursts that start spiking at you as the song goes along. And then you wonder if he’s going to put a big guitar solo here…”
Mould does lay down that guitar solo – which winds and slithers and crashes into the song’s chugging, muscular chorus, catches its breath, and erupts anew as the song scales that chorus once again. It’s a stupendous close to a record that simultaneously revisits old haunts and builds new spaces in Mould’s music – finding solace and strength in both tasks.
Asked what he hopes listeners – both old and new – will find in Body of Song, Mould replies eagerly and without hesitation: “I think, if anything, people are going to find comfort in the record. How I know that is that I’m a lot more comfortable with myself and where I am. For a long time, I was angry, contrary and I’ve sort of let go of that. Because life is short and I know that now. My comfort comes through in the record.”