Sometimes, album covers lend nothing towards the content lurking beneath. But here, the image of a younger, brooding, smoking Bob Mould of the Hüsker Dü days fading into the older yet equally intense version of himself is rather evocative. You instantly sense there’s something here about the passing of time.
There is a lot for Mould to contemplate. Not only is there his own past, but also the death of his father, who passed away while he toured his last album, 2012’s Silver Age. Indeed, on writing Beauty & Ruin, his 11th solo album, Mould said: “[My father’s death] triggered ideas about loss, about health and loss.” In turn, this prompted deep introspection and soul-searching.
This comes through from the beginning, with opener Low Season a weighty, earnest listen; the slow, dense and typically alt-sounding guitar emphasises lyrics such as “You were always there, to hear my spirit drown”, “Chances that I wasted in my unforgiving days” and “Low season, turn the sunlight down, no reason to stay around”. Here is a deeply introspective and troubled Mould and it is difficult not to feel something here. It links into the album title aptly: the beauty of a father’s love against the ruin caused by the turmoil of Husker Dü – the disputes, the drugs, suicide and total discord. Meanwhile, Little Glass Pill is reminiscent of Sugar-era Mould with some hardcore leanings, with its delivery frenetic and lyrics such as “I’m losing my mind” and lines about living in denial expressed feverishly. There’s a palpable sense of grief and profound reflection.
Mould has described Beauty & Ruin as having a sort of narrative arc to it. The opening tracks reflect the confusion and darkness clouding Mould, with even the more up-tempo sounding I Don’t Know You Anymore containing lyrics like “A thousand pieces of my heart drop across a weathered floor… maybe over time this confusion will fade”. Kid With Crooked Face is very much in the Hüsker Dü style, which is certainly hardcore to its core, while Nemeses Are Laughing has a reflective Mould “retracing footsteps of [his] younger days” and recounting a period where “there is nowhere left to go”.
But the narrative arc begins to turn to something more upbeat – as Mould says, “You’ll see the cold, grey, slow beginning heading towards this warm, fast, sunny finish”. Forgiveness does have a brightness to it, as Mould recounts being drawn to someone to seek their forgiveness before it’s too late. Here, the lyrics and gentle touches of keys present the act of forgiveness as not one that is foreboding, but one that should be embraced. From the negative – the ruins – comes something that is, in a sense, quite positive and beautiful.
Tomorrow Morning heightens this positive aura, with Mould now fully emerging from the darkness into something far more confident and optimistic: an urgency and eagerness to face the world and life head on. Mould can convey anger and darkness through his guitar like almost no-one, yet he can also present exuberance and fervour just as well when he wants to, as he does here.
Indeed, in Let The Beauty Be, Mould almost implores the listener to acknowledge the best life has to offer: “You’ve been living on the edge of a knife, maybe this could be the time of your life, it’s time to put it down and pick yourself up”. This to a rather minimal backdrop of electro-acoustic guitar and touches of drums. There’s even a touch of the do-be-dos. Album closer Fix It ends the album on a spirited high, with Mould telling us that it’s “time to fill your heart with love”.
When you think about beauty, a sort of destruction often follows, followed by a degree of re-building. It’s a narrative arc in itself, so to speak. This is obviously reflected in Beauty & Ruin. It’s done in quite a straightforward and simplistic way, which Mould has acknowledged himself. Nevertheless, it’s very effective and poignant. We could all learn something from this record: to realise that out of the ruins, we can come back stronger.