We're all bound to grow up; everyone does. Even punk rockers.
Bob Mould, former Hüsker Dü and Sugar guitarist and singer, and Paul Westerberg, former Replacements guitarist and singer, prove they're grown up in albums they released this week.
Both Mould and Westerberg can now be called singer-songwriters, though their careers were launched in the early 1980s with the best-known bands from a flourishing Minneapolis scene. They both started belting out funny, loud, fast and brief songs about being young, lonely and angry.
Now, the two artists have reached their mid-30s and those ideas don't work any more. Their new works - Mould's self-titled album and Westerberg's Eventually - do not contain the fresh and daring kind of music the two made with their bands when they were at their peaks a decade ago.
Because of that, these albums may actually be more daring because they are well-constructed and personal works. Neither work is a manifesto of the pains associated with rock stardom like many personal rock albums tend to be. Mould's pain is his own and Westerberg seems to have turned away from pain.
Mould and Westerberg have both made the transition from loud to contemplative well. Though it's easy to long for Hüsker Dü's Workbook or the Replacements' Pleased to Meet Me, what they're doing now is the right choice. Of course, it's also awkward to call former punk stars graceful; that's what these two are.
Mould is the only musician who appears on his album. What's more, he designed the meticulous cover art for the album himself.
Mould is a postmodernist and a perfectionist. Hüsker Dü played incredibly tight and well-structured punk throughout the 1980s. Mould released two solo albums following that band's break-up. Workbook , released in 1989, is a sensitive and acoustic work about frustration with a hypocritical and distrustful world. Black Sheets of Rain, released a year later, is a metal-edged work that set the groundwork for Sugar, an incredibly tight and well-structured pop trio that produced two full-length albums, an EP and a collection of b-sides between 1992 and 1995.
The most-heard word in the lyrics of Mould's album is "anymore." He repeats it several times in the tracks "Anymore Time Between" and "Thumbtack" and it resonates through the rest of the work.
In "Anymore Time Between," he muses "Look at me/ look at me/ I'm as useless as can be/ No time anymore/ not tired anymore." Mould, never known for being upbeat, is not happy here. The CD booklet's notes state "This one is for me," and offer a World Wide Web address where a Mould-written essay about the new album appears. He says he's obsessive about sounds and sights.
That's very clear in this work. If the songs that seem to be very personal are in fact personal, he's incredibly self-critical. This is true in the album's best moment, "Egøverride," an ironic piece where he sings "I'm a child, I'm a baby/ I can change my mind like any other genius/ This is genius, this is genius, this is bullshit." The song's vocals don't slip into the monotonic style that Mould sometimes uses. A distorted guitar glisses down the scale, sounding like a blow torch over Mould's steady bass line.
The other song on the album that is as memorable as Mould's catchiest Sugar writing, such as "Hoover Dam," is "Art Crisis," a bright song with a nihilistic outlook ("There's nothing I can do about it,") and clever, syncopated rhythms.
"Thumbtack" is a story about lost love but the chords don't move it forward. The story would work better if Westerberg instead of Mould had put it to one of his crackling, melodic tunes. Another song, "Hair Stew" has a Sonic Youth bassline and shows Mould with a raspy and gutsy Thurston Moore-like rant about lost love.
While Mould has produced an album in every year but one since Hüsker Dü's break up in 1989, Westerberg has been less prolific. During that time, he made what's basically a solo album under the Replacements name with 1990's All Shook Down, then a 1993 album 14 Songs. And he's contributed to sound tracks. Lots of soundtracks - Singles, Tank Girl, "Friends" and "Melrose Place." His music has been consistently poppy since the end of the Replacements and Eventually is no exception.
The new work is more fun and more consistent than 14 Songs. Instead of exploring his own psyche as Mould does, Westerberg is exploring the possibilities of perfecting pop. What's personal here is that this album is Westerberg's alone. Like Mould, he planned to leave his album self-titled. But because it took him so long to make, he changed his mind and called it Eventually. He did most of the producing and played all the instruments on several tracks.
The best Replacements albums, Tim and Let it Be had songs that rocked and songs that were messy and songs that were painfully beautiful; it seemed as if the band couldn't decide what it wanted to be, so it tried to do it all. On his own, Westerberg appears to have decided what he wants. His choice, pop, is probably the one that best fits a 36-year-old man.
But without the contrasts the sensitive and quietly ironic tunes don't seem quite as masterful as his earlier classics such as "Within Your Reach" and "Here Comes a Regular." While there are no songs as poor as the disastrous "Mannequin Shop" from 14 Songs, there are also no songs as masterful the best Replacements work.
There are fun songs and solid songs. "Century" is a rollicking tune with a Beatles-like backbeat and a smoother version of a Bob Dylan rap over the top. "Love Untold" is a clever tune about a first date, hopes and human inadequacy at communicating. It's trite, but Westerberg tells the story in a way that makes it easy to relate to. Westerberg updates romance, something that postmodernists like Mould seem to have deemed impossible. In it, the former 'Mat sings, "And both just in case/ Wear clean underwear/ Games will be played/ Excuses will be made/ The stupid things they say in their prayers/ About a love untold."
In a melodramatic piano piece, "Good Day," Westerberg pays tribute to Bob Stinson, the Replacements guitarist who died a year ago. As overblown as the song is, the spare piano chords and hopeful lyrics, "A good day is any day you're alive" work much better when Westerberg is singing them than when they're read on the printed page.
One new tune, "You've Had It With You" seems like a retake of "Down Love," from the last album. He uses the rocking little riff in a better way this time, but it's disappointing that it took him two tries to do it. Another song, the loopy "Trumpet Clip" features old Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson on bass and trombone.
Westerberg leaves his music a little ragged. He's achieving pop for pop's sake. Mould, whose songs have always been more critical, are less accessible, though they're perfectly polished. He's using pop to bash pop. Westerberg uses sad tunes with a philosophy of fun; Mould uses powerful tunes with wide melodies to contemplate anger. That's nothing new for either musician.
What is new are the self-made attitudes of the albums. Both Mould and Westerberg make all their own decisions. Westerberg gives hope of something; the currents of Eventually are about the future. He ends with a song called "Time Flies Tomorrow," a piece of quiet hope in a minor key with subtle solos. Mould exits his album full of anymore's with a song called "Roll Over and Die" and the last lines, "Some days I can barely rise/ But you don't realize/ I close my eyes for you."
Taken as advice, the messages in the two albums are contradictory: One gives hope, the other strips it away.
But conceptually, there's something both works say. Even punk rockers can't remain punk rockers forever. We've all got to grow up. Eventually.
Copyright © 1996, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 124, Number 23; May 3, 1996
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