Although it’s possibly an optical illusion, as these things often are, it sure feels like Bob Mould has been in the midst of a career renaissance lately. 2012’s “Silver Age” was maybe too limited in its range and 2014’s followup, “Beauty & Ruin,” could be a downcast bummer. But both seemed to find him revisited with a sense of purpose and focus that lit a fire under him after too many half-baked albums.
“Patch the Sky” keeps that fire burning, even as it quickly reveals a personality different from either of its predecessors. After one album of letting ’er rip and another of smoldering under a lowered brow, Mould has returned to a more layered sound reminiscent of his short-lived ’90s group, Sugar. Starting with opener “Voices in My Head,” the songs are substantially acoustic-forward, even amid ringing and roaring electrics. They’re dense, for sure: Mould packs instruments in until their sheer weight becomes a pillar of the performance. But they’re stacked, never indistinct.
There’s more to the album’s spaciousness than simply the arrangements. It’s in the chords parked at the start of every verse of “Lucifer and God” and throughout “Losing Sleep” and others, relying on suspensions for impact. The resulting movement from chord to chord creates subtle pedal-point anchors that live in the tension of remaining unresolved while providing a nervous stability. There’s aggression for sure; observe the one-two blast of “Daddy’s Favorite” and especially “Hands Are Tied.” But even those are given a softness by the chords, layered tracks, and vocal melodies. It’s like being pummeled by Nerf bats.
As on “Beauty & Ruin,” Mould’s voice is buried deep, as if he figures it’s simply another instrument and not a thing to be foregrounded. It makes it hard to decipher (and therefore care much about) the lyrics, only adding fuel to a defensible argument that the songs are largely triumphs of sonics over content. But note “Losing Sleep”: It’s driven by an implacable bassline that isn’t memorable, exactly, but it’s definitely catchy, in that it grabs hold and never lets go as it pulls you along, past the psych-pop organ and Mould’s unperturbed vocal. “Patch the Sky” might not be saying much, but Mould’s putting his all into saying it.
ESSENTIAL “Losing Sleep“
Bob Mould performs at the Paradise Rock Club May 1.Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com.