A cursory glance at Bob Mould’s latest record Sunshine Rock almost tells you everything you need to know about where the alternative rock legend’s head is at these days. The album cover features a simple but bright, retro-riffic red and yellow swirl with his name and album title spelled out in a font that seems ripped from a ’70s “Have a Nice Day” bumper sticker.
And with song titles like “Sunshine Rock,” “Sunny Love Song” and “Camp Sunshine,” you might feel a cavity coming on before you’ve slipped the vinyl LP out of its sleeve. But as is the case with most substantial works of art, the surface presents merely what the artist provides to draw you close, to give you a taste.
Make no mistake, Mould’s fifth record in the past decade is a shiny, happy collection. But, true to form for the former Husker Du frontman, that was a choice he made. As has been the case for over three decades, Mould followed a path he cut on his own to arrive at this sunny patch, because he has the freedom to perhaps be a bit risky and make such artistic decisions.
“The two albums prior to this one were informed by the loss of both of my parents,” Mould says over the phone recently. “After two rounds of that view of the world I made a conscious effort to write more optimistically.”
It’s certainly not en vogue for a musician to withhold his political anger these days. Unlike many rock artists with politically liberal convictions, for this record, Mould purposely veered away from the low-hanging Trump-bashing fruit. In some ways it was counterintuitive for an artist who railed against the Reagan administration in the ’80s, but because of his lengthy tenure and close connection to his audience, he felt called to offer a different message at this time.
“I’m no stranger to writing political songs,” he says. “But in this current climate, everything should be as self-evident as it can possibly be. I didn’t want to memorialize the people taking us down the wrong path in my work right now. I don’t think they deserve it. I wanted to give people something hopeful, and this record was made in earnest, with a childlike appreciation for music.”
Mould’s decision to avoid overtly social and political commentary on the record mirrors a philosophy he’s long held for how he conducts his concerts. He’s not into bully pulpit preaching and browbeating an already converted congregation. He admits he has “a lot of anger about the direction America is going,” but he suspects the folks coming to see him play know where he stands on the issues, which means his job isn’t to commentate, but, he says, “to play some music.”
Since becoming a leading voice of the underground scene in the ’80s along with other long-revered acts including Dinosaur Jr. and Black Flag, Mould’s creative career path has been unpredictable and free-wheeling. From the buzz-saw stylings of Husker Du, to the power-pop of his chart-topping ’90s outfit Sugar, to becoming an electronica DJ and even writing scripts for professional wrestling, Mould has thrived by doing what he wants, when he wants, how he wants.
“I tend to follow my muse wherever it takes me,” he says. “Whether it’s punk rock or folk or electronica or the wrestling, the work is usually reflective of where I’ve just been and what’s gotten into my brain. Having a long career is an amazing thing, and as I continue on, I keep looking for that balance of following my muse and being mindful of the work I’ve done.”
Mould’s daring muse led him to write his memoir, which was published in 2011. See a Little Light pried open the gates to a number of memories of his time as a trailblazing musician and the traumatic years of his childhood in Minnesota. The process of putting a lifetime’s worth of connected moments onto paper proved to be usefully cathartic, which has provided its own benefits in the years since the book’s publishing.
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“One thing the book drove home for me,” he says, “because I grew up in a violent house and had to always be very vigilant, was that I always worried about the future more than I enjoyed the present. I think I got that out of my system by writing the book, and I’m better at being in the moment, which has led to a fuller life.”
For an artist as dependent upon his muse and the freedom that following it so closely requires, Mould has also allowed the perspective of his years as an artist in the public realm to galvanize an appreciation for the ability to simply continue creating for an eager, loyal audience. If nothing else, such independence in life and in art is likely the goal for anyone hoping to live the artistic life. But even Mould is happy to adhere to some common understandings in order to keep his path clear from creative obstacles.
“As I’ve gotten older, I have a greater appreciation for what my body of work has meant to my longtime audience,” he says as he initiates a slight chuckle. “If playing an older song I’ve played many times makes the audience light up, that’s a pretty easy decision for me now. So yeah, let’s do that.”
Bob Mould performs with Will Johnson opening on Tuesday, April 2 at The Granada Theater in Dallas. Tickets start at $30.