The Last Dog and Pony Show
On The Last Dog and Pony Show, Bob Mould strikes you as music’s Harold Beale, mad as hell and not taking it anymore. If the title wasn’t enough of a clue, the liner notes state that this release is “… Mould’s final with a full-on, loud rock and roll band. The tour will effectively retire the live performance of a sound that Mould made famous.” If that’s true, Mould certainly gives ample reasons why on this, his fourth solo release. It’s a bitter set of songs, full of frustration and disappointment, almost a suicide note set to a wall of guitars.
In the hands of a lesser artist, this sort of statement would come off as the bruised ego of a rejected suitor. But Mould is certainly not that. If anything, he’s one of the few icons punk has given us. Instead of growing old and quiet like Paul Westerberg, whose Replacements were one of the few bands to give Mould’s Hüsker Dü a run for their money, Mould has never wavered from his stance of brutal honesty, emotional responsibility, and disgust at what passes for polite society. Even when fronting Sugar, his subversive pop band, Mould snuck little arrows of anger into the radio-friendly sheen and polish. Now, it turns out, we never got it.
Hüsker Dü were formed in 1979, so for almost 20 years Bob Mould has been in the spotlight, and when you hear the lines from “Vaborub:” “Rules and expectations I can’t follow anymore/ I became the person that I am,” you are struck with the feeling that he hasn’t particularly enjoyed the ride. When he follows with “I don’t get the feeling that you understand/ Only get the feeling that you’re feeling sorry for me/ That’s never been the point of what I’ve said/ … I never learned to trust another person/ Never knew a person who understood my words/ Why I chose to share them I will never know/ Knowing no one ever took the time to understand me” you wonder if he ever wanted to do this in the first place. The record grapples with the shallowness of what Mould sees surrounding himself, and his relation to it. Some of these songs sound like the bitterness of an ex-lover, trying to convince himself that he was right, long after the love has ended. Mould has evidently grown tired of trying to please those who see him only as the mosh-pit Messiah of New Day Rising or the Tops of the Pops ear-candy crafter of Sugar. It’s time to move on.
Sonically he has never made it easy, and his trademark sheets of guitar sound is in full force here. Even when strumming an acoustic, the effect is the same, such as the opening track “New #1.” It’s just as overwhelming and engulfing as the electric tracks that follow.
Mould is brilliant at crafting so much dynamic tension out of a sound that is nearly the same, track to track, album to album, with melodies built on descending chords and rarely any reliance on stock in trade riffs. He mixes the vocals so low here that they barely win out over the music, forcing the listener to either ignore them completely or truly concentrate on what he’s saying. Mould is not going to hand us anything on a platter — we’re going to have to put forth as much effort to listen as he does to play, which is fine. And if in the end we don’t like it, that too is fine. As the album closes with “Along the Way,” Mould seems to be saying goodbye. “I don’t want approval for what I say/ Only an honest reaction/ All I get are looks of confusion/ Guess I lost you somewhere along the way/ I’ll take my chances/ I’ve got nothing to hide”
Who knows what Mould will do next? For two decades he has pummeled our ears and shaken our convictions, as he does here. Whatever the next phase turns out to be, sign me up. I promise to pay attention.