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The Constant Impermanence of Bob Mould

The former Hüsker Dü and Sugar frontman provides a mosaic of his life in the set list of his current tour

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 14:  American musician Bob Mould, also guitarist and singer-songwriter for alternative rock band Hüsker Dü, performs on stage on October 14, 2016 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Sergione Infuso/Corbis via Getty Images)

Bob Mould performed an excellent career-spanning set of Husker Du, Sugar and solo songs at Brooklyn Steel.

Sergione Infuso/Corbis/Getty Images

Earlier this month, Bob Mould told me an anecdote about how people view his live shows. “Somebody once tweeted something like, ‘Oh, my God. I’m at a Bob Mould show, and it seems like it’s been an hour and a half of the same song. It’s incredible,'” he said. “At first, I sort of took offense to it, and then I realized, no, that’s actually like, ‘Oh, cool.'”

Few artists have upheld (or at least revisited) a musical point of view quite like Mould. Sure, he’s gone on electronic excursions and enjoys stints DJing. But when you watch him lead his bandmates his way through 40 years’ worth of anxiety set to staticky guitar, it’s an incredible sight. On Thursday night, he played nearly two hours’ worth of Hüsker Dü, Sugar and solo songs — 29 onslaughts of buzzsaw guitar in total — at Brooklyn Steel, located in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. It was a glorious blur of flannel and restlessness. (He was even selling orange-and-yellow plaid flannels at his merch table for $125.)

For whatever detours Mould has taken in the past — the 2002 albums Modulate and Long Playing Grooves are still head scratchers — he has found renewed focus in recent years. Since assembling a steady trio on Silver Age that includes bassist Jason Narducy and Superchunk’s drummer, Jon Wurster, he’s been consistently writing the sort of acerbically self-aware missives that defined his early career. His most recent album, this year’s Sunshine Rock, came with a twist — love songs! positivity! — but, other than a few orchestral flourishes, it presented a more refined vision of what he’d always been striving for: emotional transparency (on his terms).

The set list presented an interesting mosaic of who Mould was. There was a hearty helping of Sunshine Rockers (nine out of 12 tracks) and the title cut, “Sunny Love Song” and “What Do You Want Me to Do” showed off today’s Mould: a loving and fun-loving man who, at age 58, is content with his legacy. This also came through in the way he paced the stage, whipping his Stratocasters about, and how he sat proudly on the drum riser between encores as a loop of feedback punished his fans’ ears. There was the aching orphan, coming to terms with the loss of his parents within a couple of years ago on songs from 2016’s Patch the Sky and 2014’s Beauty & Ruin; the best was the latter’s “Hey Mr. Grey” on which parses aging by singing that kids are “so young, they’re so dumb, they don’t understand.” Mould’s problem has always been that he’s understood so much and felt so much.

That was most evident on the songs he chose from the middle of his career. Tunes like Sugar’s secretly lugubrious “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” (with its downright upbeat chorus) and the ponderous “Hoover Dam” found him making sense of all the conflicts within him. But those, along with two selections from his first solo album, 1989’s Workbook, also show off a sort of tenderness he’s outgrown. Against a backdrop of Roger McGuinn–influenced 12-string, he’d sung, “How can you qualify difference between a sin and a lie?” on “Sinners and Their Repentances,” which he made heavier last night. But in more recent years, he’s written songs like “Black Confetti,” which almost became a metal song in Brooklyn, on which he sings, “In my dreams you fade away from me/Through time, through space and emotion.” It’s a new perspective.

To complete the collage, he dedicated nearly a third of his set to songs by Hüsker Dü, the trend-setting post-hardcore band he cofounded four decades ago next month. In some ways, those songs were the most interesting to hear him sing now, since he grew so much in just eight years as a songwriter. That iteration of Bob Mould was contemplative like the Moulds of later years but a bit more like a raw nerve. Has there ever been a less sincere “I’m Sorry” than “I Apologize”? He was a Reagan protester on “In a Free Land,” a defeatist on “Makes No Sense at All,” a nostalgist on “Celebrated Summer” and an ironist when covering The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s theme song “Love Is All Around.” He was finding his footing then and when hearing these songs interspersed with his recent high-water marks, it shows how these songs predicted this.

Although the set list didn’t provide a complete portrait of who Mould has been for the past 40 years (he skipped over many of his releases between 1990 through 2011) it showed who he is now, and it felt like a complete portrait. His sheer dynamism — pushing the band to play its longest set of the tour so far — suggests he’s happy with who he is now, too. It might be hard to believe from listening to his lyrics, but Bob Mould might just finally be all right.

Bob Mould set list:

“The War”
“A Good Idea”
“I Apologize”
“Hoover Dam”
“Your Favorite Thing”
“See a Little Light”
“Sunny Love Song”
“I Don’t Know You Anymore”
“The Descent”
“Thirty Dozen Roses”
“The Final Years”
“Sinners and Their Repentances”
“In a Free Land”
“Sunshine Rock”
“Hey Mr. Grey”
“If I Can’t Change Your Mind”
“I Fought”
“Sin King”
“Lost Faith”
“Something I Learned Today”
“Losing Time”
“Chartered Trips”

Encore:
“Never Talking to You Again”
“Love Is All Around”
“Flip Your Wig”
“Makes No Sense at All

Encore:
“What Do You Want Me to Do”
“Black Confetti”
“Celebrated Summer”

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