Compositions for the Young & Old, Pt. 15 | Bob Mould, “Bob Mould” (1996)

Sugar dissolves and Bob returns to his solo roots on his very personal self-titled release.

 

 

 

 

Jason: Sugar’s career burned brightly, but by 1995, the band was done: bassist David Barbe, now the parent of a couple small children, didn’t want to tour anymore and Bob took that as a sign that the band had simply run its course. (The breakup was not without acrimony—Bob didn’t inform drummer Malcolm Travis of David’s decision until after the band’s final tour was over—but compared to Hüsker Dü’s dissolution, it was a cakewalk.)

Bob returned to his home in Austin, Tx. with his longtime boyfriend/manager, Kevin O’Neill, to recuperate and plan his next steps, but something wasn’t quite right. When the two were both home, they had little contact, and Kevin was spending more and more time out around town with new friends. Meanwhile, Bob holed up in his practice space, penning a series of searing, emotionally bare songs that addressed the disintegration of their relationship that he held back from Kevin until they were completed. The resulting album is basically a breakup album for a breakup that hadn’t happened yet (but, if you read Bob’s autiobiography See a Litte Light, a breakup that would follow soon after, with spectacular consequences.)
The album, understandably, was a very personal project for Bob. He performed all of the instruments himself, named the album after himself (we’ll colloquially refer to it as “Hubcap,” in honor of its album cover artwork), and even listed the band credits as “Bob Mould is Bob Mould.”
Mike: Searing, emotionally bare is in understatement. This is an incredibly pain-filled album. However, unlike Black Sheets of Rain, Bob changes things up, musically. It’s not droning bleak song after droning bleak song. There are scorching rockers, acoustically driven tracks, and other styles to keep the listener enthralled here.
Jason: That said, it’s still a very tough listen in spots. There are songs here that are downright devastating to listen to, the emotions are so raw.
Mike: Very. Much. So. This really is a difficult album for me to listen to in the last few years. It’s almost painful at times to hear some of what he’s saying, because I understand.
However, there are some fantastic tracks that I love to rock out to. “I Hate Alternative Rock” and “Egøverride” are both great rock tracks. When I first heard Hubcap when it came out and firstplayed “Anymore Time Between” I thought he lost his damn mind. Starting out with such a painful, visceral track? Okaaaaay. But bam, follows up with “I Hate Alternative Rock.” Whew.
Jason: The album butters you up with those rock tracks up front. “Anymore Time Between” opens things up fairly somberly, but “I Hate Alternative Rock” and “Egøverride” are back in Bob’s Sugar-era wheelhouse.
But in between them comes “Next Time That You Leave,” which is as brutal a kiss-off as you could ever hope to find. “The next time that you leave/ I’m burning everything you own/ Then you’ll have no reason/ No reason to return.” If you can find a more brutal opening to a song than that, I’d like to hear it. But it still has some rock elements to it, with the guitars going back and forth between tender ballad territory and Bob’s typical Sugar crunch.
Mike: True. And I think that is another big difference from the emotional nature of BSoR. There is a sense of finality here, that this is the end of this shit he’s been putting up with.
Jason: There’s also a specificity to the lyrics. They clearly have a target, though there’s still the universality of emotion present in most of Bob’s lyrics.
Still, none of it prepares you for “Thumbtack,” the most heartbreaking song in Bob’s catalog.
Mike: And incidentally, the one song more than any other I want to learn to play. If I could sing and play guitar at the same time (which I cannot), I would play this. Very much in the style of early Billy Bragg. Just him and his electric without any effects. Just honest, brutal, gorgeousness.
Jason: I found it impressive reading Bob’s autobio and finding out that the song was played exactly once; the version on the album is the original demo. Bob had the lyrics, sat down to record the song, and ended up instinctually changing the key of the song as he started to play, and just improvised the rest of it. Now that’s serendipity.
Mike: Fantastic. I love hearing little stories like that about songs I love. I need to reread his book, it’s been about a year.
Jason: The plot of the song is fairly simple: a couple (clearly Bob and Kevin, once you’ve read his autobio) move to a new town. “We worked out a system when one of us would leave/ A colored thumbtack stuck showing where we were going/ But over time you wore a hole/ The same place, tacked over and over/ But I never go there.” It’s a simple story, but the imagery of the deteriorating map and thumbtacks makes for an evocative metaphor for the failing relationship. And where “Next Time That You Leave” is defiant, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel for “Thumbtack.” The song ends with the line “I didn’t bother moving my thumbtack anymore,” a line which I suppose you could read as leaving behind the mores of the dead relationship but I always read as turning into a hermit and never leaving the house to face that kind of pain ever again.
Mike: That is how I take the end also. I would like to think it’s not that, but, well, it is.
Jason: That is countered a bit by “Hair Stew,” which is just pure, simmering anger. “Hair Stew” is a song I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with. It captures that feeing of simmering anger perfectly, but it’s not an easy listen, due to both the emotions involved and the atonal distortion that plays over the back half of the song.
Mike: You mean the squelching sound?
Jason: Yeah, that.
Mike: It’s a bit grating, but it adds to the hostility you feel. Similarly, “Egøverride” has an odd screechy guitar tone that for years just bugged me…even though the song has one of my favorite Bob choruses.
Jason: Huh. I guess it did take a while to grow on me because it is a big screechy, but I love the guitar sound on “Egøverride.” It’s almost like you’re listening to it from underwater.
Mike: Then he follows “Hair Stew” up with the Sugar-esque “Deep Karma Canyon.”
Jason: The drumming on it even sounds a little Malcolm Travis-y. I’d say “Deep Karma Canyon” is the only song on Hubcap that would have fit in on FU:EL. There’s Bob again, reinventing his whole sound again in a span of two years…
Mike: It’s such an uplifting, wonderful song, and so needed that late in the album.
Jason: Another way Hubcap is like FU:EL in that there are a number of outtakes, though they are closer to fitting with the tenor of the main album. Three of those showed up on the “Egøverride” single: “Wanted Was” (a nice crunchy Sugary song whose lovelorn lyrics make a nice companion to “Next Time That You Leave”), “Eternally Fried” (another heart-on-sleeve acoustic song), and “Doubleface” (a weird experiment in which the same song, played two different ways–one uptempo and poppy, one downtempo and sad–are faded in and out of each other; it’s more of a sketch than a song). The other two are instrumentals that have probably made Bob more money than anything else he’s ever recorded: one used in a long-lived American Express campaign, and another, “Dog on Fire,” that readers will recognize as the theme song for The Daily Show.
And this is about as good a time as any to mention the elephant in the room, and the way Hubcap is least like the Sugar records: the drums. Remember, Bob performed every instrument on this album. Bob is not a drummer. So what we get, instead of the kind of capable, professional groove we might have see from Grant Hart or Anton Fier or Malcolm Travis, is chintzy drum machines for the kick drum and snare and clunky live toms and cymbals. The result isn’t always noticeable, but when it is, man. The drums just suck the life out of some of these songs. Most notably on the closer “Roll Over and Die,” which is crying out for real, thundering drums and instead gets lifeless clicks and clacks.
On my wish list along with all those Hüsker Dü remasters we so desperately need is a version of Hubcap with a real drummer. I know this will NEVER happen, but god, I’d love to hear it.
Mike: I’ve noticed it more today since you mentioned it last time we talked about it. Yeah, it does bring the energy for the songs down. That big beat is really missing on many of these.
I mean, the guitar is just fucking massive here, but the drums almost feel like an afterthought, they are so weak in spots. “Art Crisis” and “Roll Over and Die” both suffer from it.
Jason: Outside of “Anymore Time Between” and “Hair Stew,” the bass isn’t very prevalent either. This is a very guitar-and-vocals-centric record. Which makes sense for a solo album, but still.
Mike: And if you are going to do a guitar and vocal record, no problem, but just do those. No need to throw in other sounds to distract the listener.
Jason: The big rock songs don’t work without drums, though. I could understand maybe using a drummer sparingly. But not using one at all was to the album’s overall detriment, I think.
Mike: “I Hate Alternative Rock” wouldn’t work without drums and bass.
Jason: Also, the synths on “Next Time You Leave,” which would have been cello on any other Bob Mould album.
Mike: Overall, Hubcap really is a very strong album built on Bob’s lyrics and guitar. This routinely gets heavy acclaim from critics.
DOGS & PONIES
Mike: Just like on FU:EL, I don’t necessarily have any Dogs here. Some songs I just love way more than others and some are just really hard (painful) to listen to. I would say “Hair Stew” and “Fort Knox, King Solomon” would be my least liked songs here. Sadly, the previously mentioned drum issues do really bring “Art Crisis” and “Roll Over and Die” down. They should be really full sounding songs but are just missing that element of a strong beat.
Oh, snap. Listening to “Roll over” again, I just noticed there is a spot where the guitar chords are swelling and he’s playing “Love Stinks” almost, around the 2:35-2:40 mark.
Jason: “Art Crisis” is actually my favorite song on this album. I absolutely worship the guitars (both the grooving, Sugar-y guitars through the chorus and that weird guitar during the verses with its little wub-wub bits), and as a self-conscious creative type, the line “Everything you hate is everything that you created” is one that really resonates with me.
This one is like FU:EL for me, too, in terms of enjoying the whole album but having some songs that I listen to far more than others. When I first discovered the album, I was a 20-ish college student just wandering out into the dating market or, to put it another way, I was at my emo-est, so I had a cathartic relationship with the darker side of Hubcap—particularly “Next Time That You Leave” and “Roll Over and Die.”
Mike: [laughs]
Jason: Hubcap very much scratched the same itch for me that Death Cab for Cutie’s The Photo Album did.
Mike: I was engaged at the time, but I still remembered the heartache and pain of a breakup. I certainly had enough of them.
Jason: Now, it’s not necessarily an album that I dig out that often. I still like those songs, but those songs still tap into a lot of the same emotions and that’s not always something you’re necessarily in the mood for.
If I put the disc on, I skip the heaviest stuff and head to “Egøverride,” “Deep Karma Canyon,” and “Art Crisis,” and I keep “Roll Over and Die” in there because it’s such a fantastic closer and much closer to Sugar territory. But “Thumbtack,” as great as it is, isn’t something I’m running back to all that often.
Mike: Yeah, I alluded to it earlier: it’s been really difficult for me to listen to this album for the past 18 months or so. “Anymore Time Between” and “Thumbtack” are just hard on me. And that kinda sucks because “Thumbtack” is my favorite on the album. Just Bob and his guitar, naked without any eerie filters on his voice, no pedal effects.
Jason: Heck, even just now, as I’m listening to the album all the way through so we can talk about it, when “Thumbtack” started I thought, “Man, do I have to? I’m having a good day and don’t want to ruin it…”
Mike: [laughs] Yeah, I can listen now. Last year at this time? Oh, hell no. But I would still much rather listen to stuff like “I Hate Alternative Rock,” “Deep Karma Canyon,” etc.
Jason: I’ve never been that partial to “I Hate Alternative Rock,” to be honest. It’s not all that musically interesting to me. And the title implies the song will be something snarky, when the lyrics are self-loathing more than anything else. Which is a shame…this album could have used some chuckles. I think “Art Crisis” hits the same notes much better.
Mike: I was hoping for snark also, but it’s still a decent rocker. I believe this is around the time he started his beef with Billy Corgan? To kind of go with his beef against Sonic Youth during FU:EL. I know many in the indie work loathed Billy…
Jason: Researching for our foray today, I found this little tidbit on Wikipedia: “Referring to the provocatively titled ‘I Hate Alternative Rock’, Mould remarked: ‘Don’t go blaming me for Bush. It’s not my fault’.” I actually like Bush, but that’s funny.
Mike: [laughs] One of their albums I enjoyed, I think it was SixteenStone. I’m sure this could be applied to Candlebox, also…
Jason: I actually have Candlebox’s debut in my car as I type this. No shame!
Mike: Candlebox? Grumble grumble. But I love Ugly Kid Joe, so I know I have no room to snob.
FINAL GRADES
Mike: Overall, I would give this a very solid B, using our Bob scale and knowing what gets A’s. Great stuff here.
Jason: I agree with a B. Give this a live drummer and I might bump it up there to tied with FU:EL. Again, though it follows directly on Sugar, this is a completely different animal. If you like emotionally heavy albums or happen to be in a dark place in your life, this might be the album for you, but it’s definitely not for everyone.
Mike: Well said. And yes, a live drummer would so totally elevate this.
Next time, Bob decides to (briefly) say farewell to rock music, but not before taking a victory lap on 1998’s The Last Dog and Pony Show.

 

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