Three songs into Bob Mould's compelling new album, it sounds like he's giving up. As if he's not even going to bother finishing the song ''Again and Again.'' Blaring and strident music suddenly gives way to slow, chiming chords in the refrain, and Mould's voice falters, weary and weak.
''Sad attempts at poetry, sad attempts at happiness, the sadness of reality,'' Mould sings, before sputtering, ''I'm okay, I've been okay, I'll stay okay.''
It's not the sound of a man happy about the state of things, or convinced he's on the right path. In fact, Mould is every bit as conflicted on the other nine songs on District Line (
Are we suffering through the winter doldrums or what?
Mould's lyrics are always a hybrid of his own thoughts and feelings and those of people around him. Mould as a person doesn't seem any less content now than he did nearly four years ago, when he released the decidedly lighter Body of Song. But we as a people certainly have reasons for greater discontent in 2008. And while Mould may not seem like the man to point us in the right direction to get out of the funk, you can't underestimate the therapeutic power of music. Because even as dour and dark as the lyrics are, District Line moves you. Mould has a way with writing pithy anthems that help to lighten the mood. He has a way with creating tight layers of sound that make you feel surrounded, even secure. He has a way of putting you in a space where you can address weighty troubles which somehow don't feel as heavy as they otherwise might.
Offering a type of musical therapy, helping create a sense of camaraderie among the discontented -- especially through commiseration about the difficulties of love and life -- that's something the post-punk pioneer learned decades ago. And District Line is especially informed by Mould's punk past. The title even seems a subtle nod to D.C.'s leading role in the punk movement. Whereas Body of Song was as informed by Mould's more recent turn to electronica, District Line is much more angular and angsty -- there are fewer flights of fancy. The music stays pretty grounded. The one song to directly pay allegiance to Mould's dance music forays is only superficially the type of joyous dancefloor mover suggested by its title, ''Shelter Me,'' and its lack of a serious hook or melody to get in the way of driving rhythm. Once you realize the key lyric is ''shelter me from everything you do,'' it's harder to imagine singing along to it at Blowoff.
One of the few things the new album shares with its immediate predecessor is digitally distorted vocals. Mould occasionally overdoes the effect, but when it works, it's captivating. On stormy album opener ''Stupid Now,'' Mould works out his feelings about saying too much to someone who cares too little. He sings the song's verse matter-of-factly and without trickery the first time through, but then his words digitally echo the second time, to signify his lack of getting a response; the words just bounce around unheard by their intended listener. Then Mould cries to himself as he sings the song's chorus, feeling sorry for his predicament. That is, until he finds the strength for confrontation. And then he yells, creating a rousing chorus. ''Everything I say to you feels stupid now!'' By that point, you're ready to shout right along.
On ''Again and Again,'' before he breaks down and almost gives up, Mould fires off at the lover he's finally leaving, in an effect that makes it seem almost extemporaneous and certainly raw. It's a rough-edged stroke of brilliance. ''I never found the trust I needed from you, everything you did was making me wonder,'' he sings, in a satisfying staccato. ''My biggest mistake was taking you back, again and again.''
Now, he's learned. And you? You'll listen to him, again and again.