Compositions for the Young & Old, Part 21 | Bob Mould, “District Line” (2008)

Mould follows Body of Song with another everything-but-the-kitchen-sink album of rockers, acoustic weepers, and electronica bleepers.



Jason: We’re now well into what I like to call Bob’s “return to form” years. After Bob’s short retirement and forays into electronica, his fans, and music critics at large, were eager for the Bob they were familiar with to come back. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that when Body of Song was released, critics heard some loud distorted guitars here, some jangly 12-string acoustics there, and immediately declared the album a “return to form!” Of course, with another decade of hindsight, this wasn’t really the case: Body of Song wasn’t a return to the Sugar-y sounds of Bob’s past, but a hodge-podge of a variety of different styles, including a lot of flourishes that were expansions on Bob’s experimentation on Modulate.
But when District Line arrived in 2008, the reaction was essentially the same: this was Bob’s return to form! (In fact, the packaging for the promotional disc I received for review upon the album’s release literally says “Bob Mould returns to form” on it.) The fact that District Line was, again, not a return to the Sugar sound but rather a continuation of the modern pop, electronica-infused alt-rock, and sober acoustic numbers that filled Body of Song didn’t seem to register. Some of that is likely a curiosity of marketing (Bob switched labels for the album, and I imagine the marketing folks at Anti- were just as eager as the ones at YepRoc had been to bust out the “No, really, the Bob Mould you used to love so much is back!” angle), but I have to wonder if some of that might be wish fulfillment, a sort of “We want the old Bob back, so we’re only going to concentrate on the stuff that sounds kind of like the old stuff, and totally ignore that there’s a straight-up trance song on here.”
Mike: I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head. By this point, we are far enough away from his days in Hüsker Dü and Sugar and his early solo work to make those albums nostalgia, which is kinda scary in its own right. Every few years or so, it seems we hear the same thing, “look this is a return to guitar rock, pop (and now hip-hop) is dead and rock blah blah blah.” I think I’ve gone through four or five iterations of that same spiel now in my life. So it never really surprised me that by the second half of the Aughts, we get that same sales pitch applied to Bob. He had been removed long enough from his rock sound that anything remotely close to that would be labeled a return to form. Also, when I normally hear that, it means it’s not really a return or it never measures up to what that artist previously was. Now does Bob deliver? On District Line, for me it’s yes and no. It’s just a continuation of Body of Song, which was just a blend of both sides of his musical coin. Thankfully he builds on that later, which we’ll get to in a few columns. I think of all his albums, this is one that I have the most frustrating time with.
Jason: It’s one I’ve been wrestling with quite a bit as I prepared for this discussion. It’s really hard to rank this next to Body of Song because that’s an album that I find uniformly good but nothing on it strikes me as particularly great. District Line, on the other hand, has some songs that I absolutely, unequivocally love, but others that are pretty middling, and even a few that I’m probably only iffy on because of my own weird personal hang-ups. So it’s Body of Song’s plateau vs. District Line’s peaks and valleys.
Or as Bob himself sings on the record, “Old highs, new lows/ Ain’t that how life goes?”
Mike: That is pretty much why I struggle with this one: a couple really great tracks and a lot of “umm, ok, that was that” kind of tracks.
Jason: I will say this album continues the trajectory of Bob’s continued improvement in incorporating the electronic elements into his songwriting. The rock and electronic sides don’t feel like they’re competing, or like separate elements being inartfully jammed together, but like they were developed in tandem. The one glaring exception is the aforementioned trance song, “Shelter Me,” which feels like it teleported in from another album entirely.
Mike: Yeah, stylistically, “Shelter Me” just doesn’t fit. Not saying it’s good or bad, just…oddly placed on this album. The guitar sounds on his more electronic tracks do add a nice texture to the songs and vice versa.
Lyrically I think the songs are strong, however he is taking a step back towards familiarity with breakup songs and songs of broken hearts. We haven’t had much if any of that for a few albums. So I’m not sure if that is a step back creatively or him just re-rooting himself, if that makes any sense.
Jason: Yeah, it’s surprising how many wicked breakup songs there are on District Line considering it’s a few years/albums removed from Bob’s big breakup. And not only that, but there’s a brutal edge to these breakup songs that hasn’t been seen since Hubcap.
Mike: Yeah, he’s pissed on these, versus just hurt.
Jason: The one I’m chiefly thinking of is “Again and Again,” which is a downright vicious takedown of Bob’s ex and his repeated infidelity. I love the exasperation in Bob’s voice here, the way he sings “My biggest mistake/ Was taking you back/ Again and again,” where the first two lines are muttered in a very measured fashion, but the last three words are suddenly louder, more strained, as mad at himself for being so stupid as he was at his ex for running around on him.
Mike: That is the one I was thinking of, too. And in his normal fashion mentions just giving up his life and moving on, uprooting himself. I wonder if that anger is because of that? It’s rough doing that.
Jason: The song then takes a very macabre turn on the last verse:
I took the bullets from the carport, tossed them in my backpack
Placed a set of keys inside the grill
I left the title to the house inside the piano bench
And my lawyer’s got the will
It sounds like a suicide note in song. Bob delivers the sentiment behind these words perfectly, singing them with a measured tone with just a hint of edge, as if he’s choking back just ungodly amounts of rage.
“Very Temporary” is another one that wears its heart on its sleeve, although in a reverse fashion: it’s not about losing a relationship, but being so desperate to be in one that you lose yourself.
This is very temporary, but I can’t do without having you around
If it’s very temporary, tell me now
Just to please you, I’d blow my brains out
This is it
Cut my heart out with a razor now
I mean, JESUS.
Mike: Several songs touch on that serious despair. He hits it on “Who Needs To Dream” as well. And I love “Very Temporary.” He has that juxtaposition with a more positive, uplifting tempo and delivery but some just bleak lyrics. “Again and again” is more down tempo but man, that solo.
Jason: It’s funny, it took quite a few listens through “Very Temporary” before that “Just to please you, I’d blow my brains out” line jumped out at me. I was like, “Whoa, wait, what? I need to pay more attention to what’s going on here!”
Mike: Yeah, I’m not sure what caused Bob to touch into such dark territory. Normally his sad music is sad and bitter, but NEVER into that area.
Jason: One of the other things I’ve always found curious about District Line is Bob playing with his song structures. There are a few of the typical verse-chorus-verse stuff, but then you have a song like “Who Needs to Dream” that alternates between verses and what feels more like a pre-chorus than an actual chorus, and the actual chorus doesn’t come in until you’re a full 80% of the way through the song, which he repeats twice and then the song stops. Similarly, “Again and Again” goes through four long verses and a nice, understated organ solo before he finally works his way around to the chorus, a chorus that follows pretty much the same melody and cadence of the verses. It’s kind of a bold gambit to make an audience used to your hooky pop songcraft to wait a full two, three minutes before getting around to the catchy parts.
Mike: Good point. It is not the most accessible album and that structure does contribute to that.
Jason: I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with it, but it’s not particularly Mouldian. Especially to have three songs in a row with that kind of delayed gratification, when you add “Old Highs New Lows” to the list.
Mike: And is it just me, or is Bob trying to “sing” more on here? His delivery throughout seems less “Mouldian,” as well. It just seems different here.
Jason: Definitely. I think that was present on Body of Song to some extent, too…look at the borderline over-emoting on “High Fidelity” or “Gauze of Friendship.” I think he actually nails it even more here…District Line may be Bob’s most vocally accomplished album since Workbook. He tries such a huge variety of tones and a wide range of emotions—from the pop diva bellow in the chorus of “Stupid Now” to that festering anger we discussed before on “Again and Again,” from that high, plaintive croon on “Old Highs New Lows” to the emotionally blank trance of “Shelter Me”—and it never really sounds like he’s stretched too far. To my ear, really the only songs that have what I would consider his trademark Bob Mould Nasal Bray are “Return to Dust” and “Very Temporary.”
Mike: He does hit the mark more often than not here. Well, way better than on, say “High Fidelity,” anyway.
Jason: You’re usually the guy to talk technical guitar stuff, what do you think of the guitar work on District Line?
Mike: For the most part, his guitar isn’t wildly different than we’ve seen before. He does have some great understated solos on this album, however. Hard to believe this is the same guy that gave us the face melting riffage on “Plans I Make” and “Indecision Time” where he is just cramming in as many notes as possible. I’m particularly thinking of his solo on “Again and Again,” which is in a very clean and twangy tone and it’s wonderful. The song is bleak lyrically, but that solo is incredibly uplifting.
Jason: There definitely isn’t any particularly frenetic material here. The more rocking songs chug more than they sprint, and any time the tempo kicks up, it’s usually sped up through Brendan Canty’s drums rather than the guitars.
Mike: Chugging is a good word to describe the rest. “Return to Dust” (which is such a damn good song) is a good example of chugging.
Jason: Probably the wildest solo comes in “The Silence Between Us.” I love how careening and out of control it sounds toward the end, then it’s subsumed for one brief second by that weird, stuttering sample of Bob’s voice before the drums and that big, loud, crunchy guitar flies back in for the final chorus. It’s utterly perfect.
And speaking of utterly perfect…
Jason: …“The Silence Between Us” really is utterly perfect. At this point, it was the best song Bob had written since LDAPS, and nothing else on District Line (or Life & Times, for that matter) even comes close.
Mike: It is a great song. I prefer “Return to Dust,” but man, that is a helluva 1-2-3 punch right in the middle of the album between “Old Highs New Low,” “Return to Dust,” and “The Silence Between Us.”
“Return to Dust” speaks more to me lyrically. It really is a traditional Bob song in terms of sound and structure. The only thing for me that it lacks is a solo. “The Silence Between Us” is an excellent song all around and has a wonderful solo from Bob as well. If anything, that would be what could push it over “Return to Dust” for me, but that is more nitpicking—both songs are As for me. “Old Highs New Lows” starts that run of songs off nicely. All three off these songs are incredibly well written and certainly some of the strongest he wrote in the 2000s.
That is what makes this album so frustrating for me: he writes these three just stellar tracks and the rest of the album is very hit or miss with some other high(er) points like “Again and Again” and “Very Temporary” and some meh ones like “Shelter Me,” “Walls In Time,” and “Miniature Parade.” “Who Needs To Dream” is decent, and the solo is good. It’s a decent, not great, song. Not saying any of these songs are bad at all, just middle of the road.
I have a love-hate relationship with “Stupid Now.” I love the energy on it, the way things kick into high gear when the first chorus kicks in, but there really isn’t much to the song in terms of lyrics, it’s very repetitive. There are times I just love that simplicity of it and the just balls-to-the-wall rock in that chorus, but there are times I just feel he could have done so much more, especially on that second verse where he breaks out the robot voice. I appreciate the pained delivery he drops into right after the robot voice. It feels sincere, but we’ve already heard those same lyrics once in the song. And, of course, he’s done songs like this better in the past.
Jason: Back when we reviewed Body of Song, I joked that Kelly Clarkson should cover “Paralyzed,” but “Stupid Now” is a song that really sounds like it was written as Bob’s take on “Since U Been Gone” (a song whose praises he’s sung more than once). Not that there’s anything wrong with “Since U Been Gone”—hell, I love it!—but I don’t think that that kind of songs aligns with Bob’s songwriting strengths. The chorus is anthemic enough thanks to that the way Bob sings it, where the words are sung so fast that they feel sound like just one big word before holding the ending: “everythingisaytoyoufeels STUPID NOOOOOOW!” It kinda works! But the verses are just clunky. “Please listen to me/ And don’t disagree” is a pretty mediocre rhyme, and he sings it…well, only three times, but it wears out its welcome after the first. The whisper on the breakdown before the final chorus is off, too…it almost seems like a guide put in for the female singer this song was really intended for.
“Walls in Time” is another clunker for me, too. He says in his autobio that the song dates back to Workbook, but it’s pretty weak as far as strummy acoustic Bob tunes go. It has some nice atmosphere thanks to Amy Domingues’ cello, but at the end of the day it’s just not very memorable. And it stretches on for over six minutes, which is just way too long for a song that doesn’t really have a chorus. And on top of that, it feels like it just stops. For a guy who has closed so many albums with a bang, it’s off-putting to have one end on such a whimper.
Mike: Very good point.
Jason: The fact that the album opens and closes on weak tracks certainly makes it a hard nut to crack. I’ll be honest, I never listened to this album much when I bought it, other than “The Silence Between Us.” It took me a long time to get around to appreciating any of the rest of the album because of how dislikable the opener was and how forgettable the closer was.
Mike: And as we previously mentioned, “Shelter Me” just doesn’t belong on this album. It’s almost like he threw it on to say “Hey, I can still make straight up dance tracks.” It just doesn’t work here and it doesn’t help that it comes after his trio of incredible songs.
Jason: “Shelter Me” is middle of the road as far as Bob electronica tracks go, but it sticks out like a sore thumb as something that just doesn’t belong on this particular album. And the sequencing only makes it worse. “Return to Dust” has those huge, chugging guitars, “The Silence Between Us” is this dynamic rock song with tense verses and a downright explosive chorus…and then in comes “Shelter Me” and it’s like a fart smelly enough to clear the room. Again, not because it’s bad, but because it just completely doesn’t fit, especially since with “Very Temporary” coming next…it’s not as “pure” of a rock song as the others mentioned because of the strummy 12-string, but it’s got its big rock moments. It fits the direction of the rest of the album, at least.
Mike: As I mentioned, this album more than any of his solo ones frustrates me the most. Maybe pare it down to a maxi EP with five good-to-great songs and cut the rest. Armchair tracklisting, I know.
Jason: The album is only 42 minutes long as it is. Knock out “Shelter Me” and “Walls In Time” and it’d barely be a half hour!
Going back a bit, earlier you declared “Miniature Parade” to be “meh.” While I wouldn’t place it on a list of all-time greats, I actually like that song quite a bit. I absolutely love those first 11 seconds, where it starts with that quickly strummed acoustic guitar (run through some kind of filter, so it sounds vaguely flattened) and then Brendan Canty comes in with that little tom fill before the song really kicks in. And I dig Bob’s kitchen sink approach to the arrangement: it starts out fairly busy with vocals, acoustic guitar, bass, drums, and electric piano, then he adds some blipping electronics for the break  that then keep bubbling up throughout the song. Then comes the bridge and in comes Amy Domingues’ cello, giving the song a little Beatles-esque twist. All of these competing elements are just kind of piled up on top of each other in different combinations, but it never goes overboard: the song sounds just busy enough. And the lyrics are pretty great, too, exploring the cautiousness of opening up to a new person. The only negative I can lodge against the song is that I still have no idea what Bob means by a “miniature parade,” but I can hardly dock too many points for him being too cryptic.
Mike: It sounds like he’s running the guitar through a chorus and a very slight flanger pedal. Also, is his voice slightly Autotuned on this track? There is almost a robotic shimmer to his voice.
Jason: Yes, I’m pretty sure it is. It starts out pure and then he adds a bit of roboticism (is that a word?), usually at the same time the blips come in. I’m not sure what the rhyme or reason was behind having that effect fade in and out like that, but it works.
Mike: I couldn’t tell if it was some effect or just a weird thing that happened because he was singing in harmony with the blips. Aesthetically, at least the song fits the rest of the album, unlike “Shelter Me” which, as you pointed out, is just so out of place.
Jason: There’s a nice flow from “Return to Dust” to “The Silence Between Us” and from “Very Temporary” to “Miniature Parade,” which is why it sucks that “Shelter Me” is shoehorned in in the middle of what otherwise would have been a solid run of songs, there.
Mike: Agreed.
Jason: For me, the more middle of the road songs are in the front half. We talked about the weird structure of “Who Needs to Dream” earlier. It gives the song a neat effect where it seems to just build and build and build and until it finally gets to the chorus and then it’s done. It’s a solid enough song, but it’s not one I seek out all that often.
Mike: To me, it is unusual that the best songs are smack in the middle. I don’t think I have seen much of that. Normally you would place your strongest right up front to pull people in and hook them. I’ll take that middle section any day (minus “Shelter Me”) but the 2 bookends, ehh.
Jason: Y’know, now that we keep talking about it, I almost feel like most if not all of the album’s shortcomings could be overcome with better sequencing.
Mike: Interesting. I can see that.
Jason: Because the way it is now, it’s all over the place. “Again and Again” is a great acoustic weeper but it’s between a big rocker in “Who Needs to Dream” and “Old Highs New Lows” with its electronic flourishes. “Old Highs New Lows” is the only song on the album that makes “Shelter Me” make sense…if they both have to be on the album, they should be next to each other.
“The Silence Between Us” is so great that it dwarfs the rest of the album. It really should be the opener.
Mike: Makes sense. “Silence” or “Return to Dust” …something just big and bold to start off with. Not to say that “Stupid Now” isn’t big, but there really is little substance to it, unlike “Silence” and “Dust.”
I’m also thinking “Miniature Parade” would make a better closer with so many songs on the album being about getting hurt and not wanting to carry on, this one about being cautious with starting over to me makes more sense to finish.
Jason: Oh, yeah, good point. Man, I kind of want to spend an entire day playing with different track orders for this album. Can we fix it, Mike?
Mike: Can we do it? Yes, we can. The only one I have a problem thinking where to put is “Shelter Me.” Besides off the album, which isn’t an option.
Jason: [laughs] Like I said, it works with “Old Highs New Lows” in front of it. I’m not sure what to follow it with, though. Actually, “Miniature Parade” could follow it pretty well…that intro makes for a good palette cleanser.
Mike: See, that’s the rub. Even though “Old Highs” is more electronic than the rest of the album, it’s really not even like “Shelter Me.” I just think it would be better on Modulate or something. Or as a B-side. It really is a momentum killer compared to the rest of the songs on the album. Unless you put it right before something so strong, but we’re saying to open with that. Or put it in front of “Stupid Now” which has a pace that can pick up the momentum…a bit.
Jason: Or so you can just skip both of them at once!
Mike: There is that option.
Jason: Heh.
Mike: So overall grade for you? For me, as I’ve mentioned before, this is a hard album to place. When it’s good, it’s good, but the rest of the time it’s very middle of the road. So do I go with a middle of the road grade, or bump it up because of the high points? I can’t in good conscious give this higher than a C+. In looking at my previous grades, this would put this in the same camp as Long Playing Groves, Candy Apple Grey, and Metal Circus.
Jason: I can live with a C+. District Line has some great songs, but it’s too schizophrenic and never quite finds its groove. It’s an album that I do bust out regularly but rarely listen to from start to finish, and if I’m saying that as a super-fan, I think it’s safe to say that (other than the perfection of “The Silence Between Us”) it’s an album that the more casual fan can probably pass on by.
Mike: Yeah, someone who is looking to dig deeper into Bob’s World might find this a good one to review, but you are correct, for the casual fan really only the highlights would suffice for this one.
Tune in next time as Bob gets in a pensive mood about the old, THE OLD Life & Times.

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