With five full-length studio albums to their credit and a secure place as one of the most influential bands of the late 1980s, Mudhoney could’ve called it quits after founding bassist Mike Lukin resigned and Reprise dropped them in 1999. Though they never moved as many albums as their Seattle grunge contemporaries Soundgarden or Pearl Jam, Mudhoney held their reputation as a ferocious live act even after the century rollover, and a well-received series of shows in 2001 led the band to return to Sub Pop, a label they helped get off the ground, bring in a new bassist, and release 2002’s Since We’ve Become Translucent, the kind of ambitious album they could never quite manage to put together for the big labels. While each of their albums retained a rawness that still keeps them from sounding dated in the way so many records of that era now do, Mudhoney’s unofficial “comeback” record incorporated some surprising new elements—most notably, the occasional brass section—that updated their trademark sound.
Their follow-up, Under A Billon Suns, runs with that stylistic momentum. Like, say, The New Pornographers, a significant chunk of Mudhoney’s appeal has always been their sloppiness—their roots are in punk, after all, so their angst and aggression are well-served by the impression that the band might fly apart on any given downbeat. Under A Billon Suns actively undermines expectations, in the way great modern rock albums are supposed to, in that, by giving even greater presence to the horn sections and carting in a glockenspiel, at least half of the tracks suggest that Mudhoney actually rehearsed them for weeks before going into the studio. There’s still plenty of distortion to please the diehards and to keep the band off the radio, but Under A Billon Suns is, by a wide margin, the tightest Mudhoney has ever sounded on record.
It’s all the more unfortunate, then, that the album’s lyrics bait the comparison to another band from the early ‘90s that few people could’ve predicted would be near peak form going into the home-stretch of the aughts: Green Day. American Idiot succeeded because of its passion, its scope, and because of the slick professionalism of its massive pop hooks. For much of its running time, Under A Billion Suns wants for the comparative subtlety and insight of American Idiot. The ideas behind screeds like opener “Where Is The Future” and “It Is Us” (as in, “the enemy,” obviously) are agreeable enough political stances—the technological advancements of the last generation have done little to promote the vision of the future promised by science fiction and both the domestic and international businesses of the American populace are cutting off its nose to spite its face, respectively—but they’re so poorly executed that it’s impossible to get on board with them, to say nothing of the “It’s our patriotic duty/To make sweet love tonight” refrain of “Hard-On For War.”
It’s telling, really, that the high point of the album, despite some admittedly great vocal work from the underrated Mark Arm, is the instrumental track, “A Brief Celebration Of Indifference.” Mudhoney has never been known for their insight, so perhaps a return to less portentous material will provide a better showcase for their continued, surprising evolution as a still-relevant rock band.