This is one of those rare instances where the album cover says it all. There’s the kid. Bushy hair. Eyes cast down. Cigarette in place and drawn heavily upon. He looks like he’s moving forward, pressing against the world but not meeting its gaze. And there’s the old man. Years later. Decades later. Gray beard. Tired eyes behind a pair of glasses, just one more marker of the attrition that comes with time passing. There are both there, one a specter atop the other, but it’s difficult to make out which figure is in the moment and which is engaged in haunting. It is Beauty & Ruin. In every sense.
Maybe the Beauty isn’t youth, though. Youth is reckless, self-destructive. Youth is about courting Ruin. For someone like Bob Mould, committed to the punk scene in nineteen-seventies and eighties, there was no shortage of opportunities for harshly romanticized self-brutality, from violence, from drugs, from everything else imaginable. His music with Hüsker Dü was a perfect reflection of that environment. It was blistering and angry, absolutely unapologetic in its fury and nihilistic assessment. Existence was a perpetual state of hardly getting over things that made no sense at all. By his own account, Mould was moving gradually towards a more healthy life by the time he launched his solo career with the brilliant Workbook (recently reissued in lavish twenty-fifth anniversary editions), but whatever progress he made elsewhere was handily replaced by bitterness over everything that had gone wrong with his prior band. It worked in his favor for a long time–there are some great records and, on all but the weakest of his full-lengths, terrific songs–but rot eventually, inevitably settles in.
After years of mildly counterproductive creative wanderlust, Mould set himself right with Silver Age, released in 2012. It was more than a return to form. It was an artful acceptance, recapturing, and reformulation of everything he’d been before. Mould wasn’t denying who he was and where he’d been. He was finally embracing it, presumably energized by useful exercises in nostalgia (writing his memoir, touring to commemorate the anniversary release of the first album with his band Sugar). Beauty & Ruin is an extension of that revived artistic spirit. “Low Season” opens the album with a slow, menacing build up to a massive, pummeling dirge, an assurance, in its way, that Mould’s clear contentment doesn’t mean he’s going to abandon grim, complicated emotions in his music.
Across the whole album, Mould offers a survey of just about everything he can do. There’s the Sugar-style hard candy gloss of “I Don’t Know You Anymore” (surely the echo of Sugar’s “Can’t Help You Anymore” is intentional) and the chipper assault of “Hey Mr. Grey” (“Life used to be so hard/ Well, get off my yard”). “Kid with Crooked Face” comes close to scratching that old Hüsker itch, while “Let The Beauty Be” has a bit of the stripped-down Workbook magic. There are even a few electronic blips coloring the fringes of songs, though anything that recalls the ill-advised Modulate can be taken as much as a threat as anything (usually the electronic tinkering quickly gives way to a blast of guitars, as if old Uncle Bob is showing that he didn’t liberate the listener’s nose from their noggin after all). Then there’s “The War,” which plays like the quintessential Mould song–driving beat, buzzing guitars, piercing vocals, pointed lyrics about a lingering sense of betrayal–and yet feels strikingly new, a two-handed reclamation of the past as a means to moving forward. When he sings, “Listen to my voice/ It’s the only weapon I kept from the war,” its as bruising and truthful as any crushing blow.
If the Ruin, defying intuition, could be seen in youth, then it stands to reason the Beauty is found in a time of, let’s say, more advance years. That doesn’t seem quite right, though. Instead, Mould’s latest album finds its clarity in a different thesis. There is, Mould musically argues, Beauty in the Ruin. One just has to look. Or listen.