The New Releases Shelf — Sunshine Rock


I’ve been repeatedly certain I’d finally encounter the sunny side of Bob Mould for at least twenty-five years. Upon the release of File Under: Easy Listening, the sophomore album from Mould’s band Sugar, I hummingbirded around my college radio station, enthusing to anyone with ears about the track “Your Favorite Thing.” It was upbeat, even sweet! Sure, there was that little detail in the lyric about being shunted onto the beloved’s bookcase “alone with all your other favorite things,” but don’t focus on that, for goodness’ sake. There are no dying relatives or scathing betrayals. On the Mould scale, that practically made it a piñata stuffed with doubloons and rainbows. Ever since, album and album, my most immediate response is to burrow in an emerge with the truffle of happiness that can be found within, the expression of contentment or pleasure or satisfaction that tell me, I suppose, that Mould is okay.

With his latest album, Sunshine Rock, Mould is pushing happiness right to front. In interviews, he’s addressed it directly, affirming that the album’s title is indeed a thesis statement. He knows his own history. He knows full well that he’s defined as much by the glum admissions of “Hardly Getting Over It” as any other entry in his increasingly voluminous catalog, so writing a song like the title cut is automatically a statement. And Mould has plainly said that when he landed on the notion of a pointedly cheery outlook, he ran with it, shaping the whole album accordingly. He even fretted about the material that took a darker turn, at one point discarding a whole song because of it’s darkness and instead kicked out “Camp Sunshine,” which sounds a little like Green-era R.E.M. and includes resolutely upbeat lyrics (“The days I get to spend making music with my friends/
Are always most important to me”). That the lyrics honestly, movingly allude to the sadder realities of the sort of place that presumably provided at least part of the inspiration somehow, as before, only accentuates the positivity.

Whatever place Mould occupies on the happiness meter, the album finds the venerable college rock survivor in fine fettle. He’s playful and powerful, crafting songs that bear all his signature sounds and yet sound fresh, inventive, free. There’s not all that much sonic distance between the pristine sonic clatter of “What Do You Want Me to Do” and the sludgy slugging of “I Fought,” but they both carry different shrapnel of Mould’s long history, which means they join together as a proper extension of his established artistry. He’s well past reinvention. He’s tried that before, with dubious results. Instead, he’s found the secret that eludes many artists who can celebrate a career that hits the forty year point: He finds new wrinkles within familiar forms. He makes the old new.

That low-key discovery sometimes means Mould kick up the littlest flourishes that signal gleeful invention, such as the the Sweet-reminiscient yelp that opens the cover of Shocking Blue’s “Send Me a Postcard.” Getting a sizable impact out of a small gesture is another thing that comes with decades of musical antecedents. Mould gets to be the guy who blazes a new trail while walking with the same old gait. Is he happier? Maybe, maybe not. I do know that when I listen to Sunshine Rock, I feel a whole lot better.

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