Bob Mould’s 13th solo album, Sunshine Rock, is in one sense a continuation of a renaissance for the erstwhile Hüsker Dü and Sugar frontman. Like his recent work, it sees Jason Narducy on bass and Superchunk’s Jon Wurster on drums, and is characterized by overdriven guitars and surging melodic hooks that contribute to the album’s high-octane, raw-nerve energy. But there’s something different about it too, as Mould sounds almost happy throughout. As recently as 2016’s thunderous Patch the Sky, he seemed as mired in despair as ever. And yet, even though the doomsday he foretold on that album’s “The End of Things” and “Lucifer and God” has often seemed like it’s come to pass over the last three years, Mould sounds determined to not let his misery get him down.
Mould’s relatively sunnier outlook would seem to be more a result of changes in his personal life than any sort of reassessment about the state of the world. In 2017, he moved to Berlin to cope with the death of his parents by adopting a concertedly upbeat mindset. One evidence of his success is “Sunshine Rock,” the title of which is a double entendre that seemingly describes both the physical location of some passionate outdoor sex and the radiant major chords and melodic refrains that course through the song. There’s even an 18-piece string arrangement that takes the song further into pop territory.
That’s only one of the four songs on the album in which the sun is mentioned in the title—all of which flirt, appropriately, with bubblegum-pop textures. Among them, the gentle, nostalgic “Camp Sunshine” is the most disarming, featuring Mould issuing a rather earnest greeting: “Greetings from the camp/Where every day is fun/The weather’s warm, everyone is cool.”
If that sounds iffy coming from one of the architects of post-punk, be assured that Sunshine Rock maintains a mostly sharp-edged sound, at least approaching the same prodigious level of guitar fuzz that made Patch the Sky such a bracing kick in the jaw. The anthemic closer “Western Sunset” in particular is classic Mould, marrying fist-pumping hooks with “Waterloo Sunset”-esque backing vocals and a pummeling wall of guitars. Elsewhere, “What Do You Want Me to Do” strikes a more caustic tone but features an equally cathartic shout-along chorus, built on the back of a roiling guitar riff that ranks among the catchiest Mould has come up with recently. And perhaps needing one more classic rock-style hook to round out the album’s themes than he cared to write himself, Mould covers Shocking Blue’s minor 1968 psych-rock hit “Send Me a Postcard” in a considerably rocked-up arrangement.
Sunshine Rock’s middle stretch intermittently lacks the same balance of melodicism and aggression as its highlights. While the speedy punk rave-up “Thirty Dozen Roses” will satisfy Mould’s old-school fans, drearier rockers like “I Fought” and “Sin King” are far less memorable. But even on what seem to be, on the surface, Sunshine Rock’s bleakest songs—“The Final Years” and “Lost Faith”—Mould’s newfound optimism peeks through. On “The Final Years,” he’s ostensibly back to singing about the end of the world, but he acknowledges that even if it’s all about to go up in flames, dwelling on that fact is a waste of time: “Where did I put my sense of misplaced rage/Who crossed the lines I dreamt up in my fevered stage?”
On “Lost Faith,” the foreboding riff that drives the verses, along with his insistence that he’s “lost faith in everything,” again places Mould squarely in a troubled headspace, as the string section from “Sunshine Rock” returns to add a sense of sweeping drama. But he snaps out of it on the unexpectedly upbeat chorus: “We all lose faith in troubled times/You better find your way back home.” It’s good advice, and, like the rest of Sunshine Rock, proof that, contrary to popular belief, the tortured-artist path isn’t the only way to great rock ‘n’ roll.