So I have to admit -- even as a true Bob Mould nut, I was really worried even before I heard a note of this album. Let's examine the warning signs:
1. There was no real build-up for the album;
2. none of the songs had been played live for any length of time;
3. there were no b-sides or extras for the album; and
4. Bob's comments on the album were slightly cautious.
Now I could go on (for quite some length, actually) as to why this analysis was significant, but suffice it to say that this is basically the same formula that led to what I would consider to be Bob's worst album since he left Hüsker Dü, The Last Dog and Pony Show. (In Bob's defense, this album still had three gems -- "New #1," "Moving Trucks," and "Who Was Around?" -- and overall was better than 3/4 of the music I heard that year. The man just operates on a different level than other artists.)
As a music listener, I like to assimilate, judge, and organize. I'll listen to the album, form an opinion, and then decide how that album fits into my musical life. Sometimes one listen is all it takes; other times it'll take twenty. The process differs from album to album and listening format to listening format (as detailed here).
This one took one listen. My first thought: this was the worst album Bob had ever made. No doubt. My second thought: I should play this album again.
This went on for a number of listens: this album is no good... I should play it again.
I get a phone/iPod. Get it all set up, and am ready to load up music. The first album I think to put on it? District Line. What the hell is going on?
I can't figure it out, but I'm basically in the throes of what I'd call "Subconscious Listening," where part of your brain is insisting there's gold at the end of the rainbow, but can't tell you why; the other part of your brain wishes it would hurry the fuck up and get there already.
At this point, I'm listening to the album constantly. Bob's voice, which sounds underproduced at first, is clearly an affect: there's more of a raw quality here than some of his previous efforts, which makes the songs more personal and emotional. I've now gone from one good song to four great ones: "Stupid Now," "The Silence Between Us," "Very Temporary," and "Walls in Time" (the latter of which was left off the 1989 classic Worbook). On the first listen, I swore off "Again and Again"; now I'm not only listening to it but enjoying it. My first listen also completely underestimated the lyrical depth of the album.
Three things that can't be denied: Bob Mould is a great guitar player; Bob Mould is also an excellent bass player; and Brendan Canty (of Fugazi) is a great drummer. These factors can only help.
So my overall opinion of the album? Here it is: I'm playing it constantly. I'm not going to say it's great, and I'm not going to say you'll love it, but I am playing it all the time. And I think that's as good of an endorsement any album could ever get -- that's the whole point, right?
Before we get to the ratings, I also saw the man with his band (no Brendan Canty, unfortunately) Wednesday night at The Paradise in Boston. (Thanks to Margo Saulnier for the pic.)
I've never seen a crowd go that nuts at a Bob show before (more an indictment of Boston crowds than of Bob). During the Hüsker Dü classic "Divide and Conquer" the front was starting to turn into a 1-man mosh pit. (Another Margo pic.)
I'll always have favorites that won't make into Bob's setlists (he has been making albums for 27 years now, after all), so I'll save my grousing. I hadn't heard "Can't Help You Anymore" live since I saw Sugar in 1995, and "Moving Trucks" since TLDAPS tour of 1998; I don't think "Divide and Conquer" has been played since 1987, so you have to give credit to Bob for digging deep on this setlist. He only played 3 songs off the new album, one of which ("Miniature History") was one of the only two mis-steps in the whole show (a slowed-down "Circles" was the other). (Thanks to Paul Hilcoff for the pic.)
The show was a blur of sound, fury, and lots of smiles from Bob. Great crowd energy never hurts, but these guys were on top of it all night. They started strong with "The Act We Act," "A Good Idea," and "I Hate Alternative Rock," threw in an intense "Hanging Tree" in the middle, and rode Hüsker Dü ("I Apologize," "Celebrated Summer," "Chartered Trips," "Makes No Sense at All," etc.) and Sugar tunes all the way home. (Another shot from Paul.)
It was loud, it was intense, and it was fun. The energy was unbelievable and most everyone I saw walked out with big smiles. Thanks for a great evening, Bob. (One more shot from Paul.)
The final verdict?
CD Placement rating: I'm listening to this every hour. Definitely enjoyable. It goes into the CD changer, onto the iPod, and onto both the desktop and laptop. I may burn a 2nd copy to make sure I'm covered.
Merch rating: I own almost everything the man has ever recorded. So I went to the show and bought a t-shirt, the limited edition print, and the vinyl of his last album (2005's Body of Song.) And I would have bought another t-shirt for a friend if they had larger sizes (no 2-XL). Now that's a positive merch rating.
iTunes suggestions: "Stupid Now," "The Silence Between Us," "Very Temporary," and "Walls in Time."