It will be no surprise to any fan that Bob Mould’s twelfth solo album is unflinchingly dark.
The former Hüsker Dü and Sugar vocalist made it clear from the beginning that Patch The Sky is a catalogue of the crippling despair he has experienced in recent years, following his mother’s death and the loss of several friends. “I withdrew from everyday life,” he said of the album ahead of its release. “I wrote alone for six months. I love people, but I needed my solitude. The search for my own truth kept me alive. These songs are my salvation.”
Though only 55, Mould sounds like he’s recollecting a long life filled with unanswered questions. He earned a reputation early on as the acerbic, pissed-off punk countering the overwrought glam of the 1980s, with Hüsker Dü’s 1984 double album Zen Arcade lauded for its merging of outward angst and quiet introspection. But his earnestness has perhaps never been as bare and unadorned as on his latest album. As the concluding chapter in an album trilogy, Patch The Sky’s emotional destitution is measured, exacting, and without the refuge of hook-driven distraction of its more obtrusive predecessor, 2014’s Beauty & Ruin. Though time hasn’t weathered his penchant for pessimistic wit, his muse of late is personal fragility.
FACT spoke with the veteran songwriter about the impact of mortality on his work and the unexpected benefits of creating such a dark album.
“I’ve had a lot of loss in the last handful of years – the best of times in public, the worst of times in private”
You were very direct in the press release for Patch the Sky, describing it as your darkest yet. What was your reasoning behind putting that upfront?
I felt pretty strongly that it was a ‘down’ record, as I like to call it. Sometimes there’s up records, and sometimes there’s down records. These are the musings of a down period. They’re pretty dark thoughts, and as much as just trying to throw that out there so [listeners] would have a place to start with it, I think it’s a way to set up the contrast that I think is real apparent in the record, whereas I think the words are pretty dark, but the music is actually quite uplifting. It’s fairly positive, and it was just a nice way to set that contrast up for people, whether it was people coming up to review it or whether it was fans coming to it. It felt like a nice flare to send out in advance of the record.
Thinking of Patch the Sky and also an album like Bowie’s Blackstar, it’s hard not to consider the effect that mortality is having on a certain era of songwriters as they get older.
It’s amazing that there’s so many records about mortality, because a) we’re in a young person’s field and b) not many people get to the point in their lives and careers where they’re still working, and they actually have the time and perspective to speak on it. [Laughs] So I think it’s a good thing. I think what you were talking about with being straightforward, there was nothing oblique or oddly referential to some obscure art movement, as so many press releases are these days. I’m on many [press] lists; I read lots of them every day, and I chuckle when I see people who veil themselves up front.
I think one of the suggestions I made in the press release was that drilling down too deep into lyrics or content is not really necessary. I’m being very upfront. I’ve had a lot of loss in the last handful of years, and contrasting that with all the critical acclaim and this sort of resurgence – I mean, best of times in public, worst of times in private. As opposed to trying to hide the content of the record, it’s like, “Here. It’s a dark record. I went through a dark period. I felt very isolated. I took six months away from the excitement of life to sit and contemplate the meaning of the rest of my life, and here it is.”
It wasn’t what I intended on doing. It’s sort of akin to thinking, “Okay, people are coming over for dinner. It’s time to cook something.” And you open up the refrigerator and you only have a certain amount of things to cook with. [Laughs] “Here’s what we’re having for dinner, because it’s all I had to work with.”
The fact that this record was the result of a very dark period of your life makes sense given how bare and subdued the music is.
I felt pretty fragile through the writing. I felt pretty certain of the music but uncertain of the message as we were making the record. By the time got through making the record, I was feeling really good about the message but still not sure about how people would respond to it. From the period around early September to the initial response to the record I was sort of concerned. Are people gonna get this? Is this way too self absorbed? Is any of this gonna speak to a condition that other people can refer to and feel like they can be part of it?
Maybe the directness and the simplicity of the stories and not couching those emotions in a lot of allegory or symbolism – it’s like words written on a sleeve. Here they are. [Laughs] I think the bluntness of that and the directness of it, maybe that’s what people are responding to. That it’s not a gigantic, conceptual Greek tragedy where they have to have a handbook to get through it. I didn’t spend a lot of time in the writing process trying to shine up words or shine them down to where there wasn’t anything left to see.
Do you find yourself becoming more introspective with your music as you age?
I think it goes through phases. After Hüsker Dü, which was a sort of juggernaut of songwriting and performing for eight years, when I withdrew from that in 1988, that year was very comparable to 2015 when I wrote this record, where I was just really pulling back and taking more of an interior look at things. It just goes through cycles. Sugar was a very outgoing, very celebratory, extroverted kind of band by the end. I think a lot of it has to do with success and stepping back from success, and I don’t have any control over that. I think it has a lot to do with where I might be at any particular point in my life and the circumstances and things that are around me. Sometimes I feel very outgoing, and sometimes it’s best for me to get out of traffic and just sit at home and do my work and take time for myself. There’s no predicting any of that.
I think the key is, for me, that I write what I feel. I write what I know. I don’t create a lot of fiction about things, and on this record things are very literal. Some things are very observational of others and what those people are going through. Do you ever have those days where you go on social media, and you see a note that somebody’s dad passed away, and you pause on that for a minute, and then you come back later, and there’s two more people with the same thing that happened? It’s like that where it’s a distorted view of reality or how life happened. When coincidences start piling up around you, then that’s the observational component of the introspective songwriting process. It’s sort of you seeing it in others like flu season. [Laughs] I have to laugh, or otherwise I get too serious.
“The key, for me, is that I write what I feel. I write what I know”
Do you find that what informs your work has changed significantly over your career so far?
This record was very much interior view at the beginning, but there’s glimpses of others in it. Over time I’d like to think that the improvement I made with this record was the recognition of the contrast between bright words and dark music. I think one of the aspirations in general of storytellers and songwriters is we’re conditioned through examples. People like Leonard Cohen and Elvis Costello are amazing wordsmiths, and as time goes on, their stories have become more complex, and that’s a path that sometimes we look at and think, “Oh, I should do that. I’m at that point in my life, and I have to do that.”
I think that’s great, but maybe at this moment in time it was nice not to feel like I had to complicate my work just to feel like I’d grown. To me, the growth was just recognizing that shadows and memories are enough. It doesn’t have to be bilious, temperamental, oblique, crystalized – it’s like leaving out the adjectives that aren’t necessary. [Laughs] I was having a conversation with somebody the other day, and they were talking about their life, and they were talking about their partner, and they said these three things in a row, and when I took away all of the words, and I just focused on those three words that they said and then said them back, they just went: “Oh my god.” There it is, right? If you take away all of the secondary colors, and you’re just left with the primary words, all of a sudden you go, “Oh my god. That’s what this is.” [Laughs]
Is this an album you think you could’ve written 15 years ago?
I think I’ve tried to write a record like this at different times. The Hubcap record in ‘96 was sort of a down, dark interior period. I look back on it and I think it’s a great record, but sometimes it’s a little bit labored sounding. Sometimes it’s a little too mechanical, but I think those were ideas that I was touching on. I think a lot of the genesis of this style is from that Workbook, Black Sheets of Rain period [his first solo albums, released in 1989 and 1990 respectively]. That’s the good news with Patch the Sky, is that instead of weighing down these dark emotions with dark tempos and dark melodies, to have that contrast and be aware of it as I’m writing the music and words – that was nice that it unfolded that way.
When I’m writing 50 songs, and I’m being very careful with the finite amount of words and thoughts that I want to get across, I think one of the beauties and one of the maturities is not wasting my words. I’m not the kind of guy that likes to recycle words too often. I guess it’s maybe that I’m learning economy, and that could be related to slowly declining energy. [Laughs] It’s just that kind of stuff like, work smart and not hard.