"I've realized that one of my strengths as a songwriter is writing very catchy songs with very down lyrics," Bob Mould says in a manner that sounds oddly familiar, almost as if he's revealing a secret. "People enjoy it. I enjoy it. It seems to be one of those things that I do regularly and do well. That kind of contrast is important to me."
That contrast proved to be so important to the former Hüsker Dü and Sugar frontman that he structured his 11th studio album around it, titling it Beauty & Ruin and designing a cover featuring pictures of himself at different ages. "The idea of me at 18 or 19, chain smoking, versus me at 53 and actually quite healthy struck me as striking and weird," he says. With the idea of contrast in place, Mould settled into a narrative that covered four major themes: loss, reflection, acceptance and the future. The concoction made for a rock-focused album, similar to his 2012 Silver Age, filled with songs – "Low Season" and "Let the Beauty Be," for instance – that have all the acerbic bite of his Hüsker works and the melody that defined his time in Sugar. It's an album that's as deep as it is hummable.
The catalyst for the record's themes occurred in late 2012, right after the release of Silver Age, when his father died. Mould had just come off a series of highs, including seeing his career celebrated by the likes of Dave Grohl, Britt Daniel and Margaret Cho at a tribute concert at Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall, putting out his 2011 memoir, See a Little Light, and touring off and on with the Foo Fighters. In hindsight, he now looks at that period and the release of Silver Age (a "party record," by his estimation) as a "free pass."
"Everything was going great," he says. "My father's death was not unexpected, but it was still a sad event that happened. That October of 2012 was the beginning of a 12-month period of gathering ideas and writing."
But the record became heavier, to use Mould's word, as he entered a rough patch following his father's death. "I'm getting to that point in my life, where I've been losing people and people are getting really sick around me," he says. Then he pauses. "It's weird. It can be a downer, but it can also be very enlightening. I'm very grateful that I'm in a line of work where now that I've stayed around long enough, sadly I get this perspective. It's not a popular one in rock music."
Mould's dark times, and a few of the enlightening moments that came from them, made for a set of 12 songs that fit an arc he now likens to the course of an average day in his adopted hometown of San Francisco. "It starts gray in the morning, and it's usually pretty sunny in the afternoon and it's gray in the evening," he says. "It's a deep record to me. You can drill down with me, or you can put it on in the car and rock out. It works both ways. You don't have to marry yourself to my ideas, but I do think there's a decent amount of thought put into the record."
Although the way Mould describes his creative process sounds dour, he's right about the fact that many of the songs come off sounding a bit more upbeat than their wellspring. Part of that comes from the biggest inspiration behind his songwriting, musically: his two funny bandmates, bassist Jason Narducy (possessor of "Rock's Sexiest Elbows") and drummer Jon Wurster, who also plays in Superchunk and does standup. Together they made a song about disillusionment – Beauty & Ruin's "I Don't Know You Anymore" – sound upbeat enough to make for a Funny or Die music video, the concept for which Mould credits Wurster. And they helped Mould construct a bouncy punk backdrop for his tongue-in-cheek complaints about getting older in "Hey Mr. Grey."
The latter track begins with a series of self-deprecating observations: "'Hey Mr. Grey,' that's what the children say/Life used to be so hard – get off my yard," and escalates with one-liners about Mr. Blue and Mr. White. "That was a cute song, coming up with that first verse and then having somewhere to go with it in a very short amount of time," he says. "It became this silly nursery rhyme. The colors work for two minutes."
But then there's another cheeky allusion in the song that Mould only realized after the fact: The line "the kids don't follow," which comes off like a subtle jab at his onetime Minneapolis rock neighbors in the Replacements, who had a song called "Kids Don't Follow." "That just fell out," he says. "I didn't even see that happen, then I realized, 'Oh, that's funny.' Some people have asked, 'Is that a tip of the hat or is that making fun?' When I remembered it was a Replacements title, now it's the tip of the hat."
Similarly, Mould toys around with wordplay throughout the record. One of his favorites occurs in "Let the Beauty Be," a song about depression that contains the line, "You've been living on the edge of a knife/maybe this could be the time of your life." "It's like, OK, think about what I said for a second, be cynical for a second," he says. "That's the beauty of words. Put the knife down. You can only laugh, right?"
When he thinks back on the whole process of making the record and all its filtered, intensely personal themes – much like the intimate confessions that have defined his songwriting style 30 years ago in Hüsker Dü – Mould says he doesn't regret putting all of his feelings out there. "Sharing personal stuff, that's what I do," he says. "I think that's what people expect. If I'd written bubblegum pop for 25 years and then I made a deeply personal record and regretted it, that would be one thing. This is just what I do. I don't even think about it."