Alt-rock icon Bob Mould once again delivers a mature and effective record with his latest, District Line.The current D.C. native (with a nod in the title) has been rocking for over a quarter of a century, first in the seminal 1980’s punk-rock group Hüsker Dü, then solo and in the acclaimed 1990’s alternative act Sugar. This is his first new album since 2005’s Body of Song, though last year he did release his live DVD, Circle of Friends (QRO review). Body of Song was largely a return to form after spending the early parts of the twenty-first century dabbling in electronica, and was accompanied by his first tour with a band since a decade prior, with Sugar. District Line follows that Bodyline pretty closely, maybe a step further away from the electronic, and a bit more varied in its style. But what’s important is that Mould hasn’t lost his touch as a singer, guitarist, or songwriter.
Still, a large portion of District Line is an electro-rock mix, no doubt supported by Mould’s keyboardist and partner in their house-electronica side-project, Blowoff, Richard Morel. Opener “Stupid Now” starts dark and straight-up, but then goes orchestral-wise into electro-rock, bigger and bigger, better and better (though the reverbed voice in the second half is kind of unnecessary). Mould mashes up electro-rock perfectly on the following “Who Needs To Dream?”, an atmospheric mix of electronica and Mould’s higher work. The reverb and echo is turned up on “Old Highs, New Lows”, giving it a definite prettiness and interest, though the reverb on “Shelter Me” is overdone. However, Mould nicely reinvents his electronica on the penultimate “Miniature Parade”, the track’s sweet swing getting refreshingly expansive.
While Mould is accomplished with the electronic, you don’t have to be a long-time loyalist to feel it can never match his top-notch voice and guitar (though it helps). The probably first single, “Again and Again”, is a sad and evocative piece that can stand right up there with anything he’s done, from Hüsker Dü’s “Hardly Getting Over It” to Body of Song’s single, “Circles”; it is carried by the power of Mould’s voice and storytelling ability. District finisher and other likely single “Walls In Time” is sweet and melodic, with its own wonderful carry, reminiscent of Mould’s solo acoustic work on his first post-Hüsker work, Workbook.
Yet Mould doesn’t leave out the hard rock, maybe the nicest surprise on District Line, with the back-to-back “Return To Dust” and “The Silence Between Us” in the middle of the record. The tougher “Return” is very much a ‘return’, akin to Workbook’s plugged-in follow-up, Black Sheets of Rain. But “Silence” is an awe-inspiring piece of ‘sun also rises’ rock, growing and brightening as the light at the end of the tunnel, without ever losing its edge. With guitars as fine as anything he did with Hüsker or Sugar, Mould rocks hard – and rocks well.
When taking in an artist with as long and storied a career as Bob Mould, it can be tough not to grade on an inverted curve, measuring up his latest against the best of his entire songbook. There’s never going to be anything quite like the awe-inspiring force of Hüsker Dü or the catchy alt-rock of Sugar. But Mould is making his own way, as he should, whether it be in location or sound. District Line is a strong, powerful piece for fans to enjoy, and for Mould to be proud of.