Bob Mould's illustrious career is easily marked by three distinct phases (or changes, changes, changes, if you will).
First, as frontman of hardcore punk band Hüsker Dü , he helped characterise the 80s U.S. underground rock scene in a way that only Sonic Youth and the Minutemen can really claim to have matched. Following their break up and a brief solo stint, his next band Sugar found commercial success with some of the best power pop records of the early 90s, focusing on issues of the heart as much as society in unashamedly melodious fashion. In 1996, he returned to focus on a solo career that this year saw him put out his 12th record under his own name of ever-maturing and tuneful but resolutely abrasive indie rock.
Simple as that, or so I thought. On record at least, the move from one of these stages of his career to the next was reflected in a distinct sonic or topical shift. Tonight, at Bristol's bizarre SWX venue (which looks like the kind of every-town-has-one nightclub only used for rock shows when the students are out of town – although, they aren't), the threads present in his work are so easy to spot it feels like we're being repeatedly whipped by the things.
A lot of this is down to Bob's guitar sound. It barely changes all show long, and it's the loudest thing I've heard this side of a Sunn O))) gig. It's bludgeoning, but a delivery this forceful and coherent – rather than making things sound much of a muchness – actually does the various, disparate parts of his catalog a fine service. It brings out the melody in old Hüsker Dü songs, the menace in Sugar classics, and adds a vibrancy to his subsequent solo material that hasn’t always come through in the studio versions. The Dü's "Something I Learned Today" and "Hardly Getting Over It" show a mastery of both pop punk and rock ballads respectively, Sugar's "Changes" and "If I Can't Change Your Mind" feel like they almost physically wrestle with matters of romance, and more recent additions to the canon "Voices in my Head" and "The End of Things" are dispatched with a fervour that sees them punch at least at the weight of their more time tested setlist compatriots.
Another thing I got wrong about Bob Mould; from nowhere, I had this image of him as something of a miserly figure, perhaps from an assumption that playing the punk rocker in various guises for nearly four decades has to suck something of the life out of a guy. But the smile cannot be wiped from his 55-year-old face. Whether his happiness derives from a sardonic pleasure at subjecting people to quite this level of squall, or simply from looking down at the setlist and each time noticing that hey, he's written loads of really awesome rock songs and it's time to play another one, I am not sure. But I'm as happy to have had my misconceptions and ears blown by Mould as he clearly was about the whole thing too.