Old rockers keep on getting younger. "Hope I die before I get old" remains the relevant credo, but it's no longer restricted to those who qualify for dual membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the AARP. Geezerhood isn't just for fiftysomethings like Pete Townshend or Mick Jagger anymore. The top end of Generation X is now 40, which means the first icons of college radio are getting creaky.
Take Paul Westerberg and Bob Mould—both relics of the post-punk, pre-Nirvana '80s Minneapolis scene, Westerberg with the Replacements and Mould with Hüsker Dü. In the '90s, Mould segued gracefully into solo work and a new band, Sugar, while Westerberg's one-man efforts were more sporadic. Now Mould is 40, Westerberg 42. It's been five years since Mould's last record, 1998's solo The Last Dog and Pony Show, and three since Westerberg released Suicaine Gratification.
In a music business climate where a few corporations control everything and patience is not a virtue—many new bands don't even get to make a second record, while long-established artists get dumped if they don't sell—both men have turned to independent distribution. Westerberg's new one, Stereo, is the first fruit of a do-whatever-you-want deal with California indie Vagrant Records, best known for so-called "emo" bands like Dashboard Confessional. Mould's latest effort, Modulate, is on his own imprint, Granary Music.
Neither artist has a new solution to the quandary of pop music at middle age. Bob Dylan may be better than ever at 60, and Neil Young, Mr. "It's Better To Burn Out Than It Is To Rust" himself, has done good work in codgerhood. But they also made a lot of awful records. When you've been at it for a while, your artistic choices are often limited to resting on past laurels, floundering for new ones, or simply running in place.
With the first pulse of Modulate's opening track, "180 Rain,"Mould announces he'll be floundering. I mean, experimenting. Processed vocals? Check. Endless blips and squeaks and squiggles? Check. A chorus that sounds like, "You can't stop the rhythm"? Check. (It's actually "rain.") Apparently Mould has been locked in a room with computers for the past year, determined to give the world the silliest synthesizer-aided artistic reinvention since Young's infamous Trans.
But that's only on first listen. While Mould actually pursues his electronic muse more aggressively on a second record (Long Playing Grooves, to be released in June under the name LoudBomb), Modulate is only half a leap. The first six songs are frantic, unusual, and jarring, with mixed results. "Sunset Safety Glass" evokes the furious electro of Orbital, with whom Mould otherwise shares only hairstyles. But "Semper Fi" is really another kind of fi—lo, with buzz-saw guitar and mumbled vocals underpinning a busy kaleidoscope of arpeggios and bleeps. And by the seventh track, "Slay/Sway," it's the same old Mould, crunchy harmonic thick-textured pop songs like he's always offered, but with loops and samples. In other words, he's just making rock 'n' roll, the same way everybody else, from the Flaming Lips to Limp Bizkit to Radiohead, make theirs these days.
Westerberg, on the other hand, is not, and admits as much in Stereo's accompanying press material. "Don't say it's anything fresh or new," he says. "It's not. You hear the very first record I ever played and you can hear this one and you'll hear a lot of similarities. I am what I am goddammit."
You have to feel for the guy. He didn't get any credit whatsoever for his finest album as a songwriter—the final Replacements record, All Shook Down (1990)—because fans were too busy pondering his perceived betrayal of the band's punk aesthetic to notice its understated beauty. Ever since then, Westerberg seemed dogged by expectations—to live up to the 'Mats, when he wasn't them; to live up to his drunken fuck-up genius reputation, when he was trying to shed at least the first two qualities; to hitch a profitable ride on the "alt-rock" bandwagon his music helped get rolling. He is a grandfatherly presence on 1992's Singles soundtrack, with two songs amidst just about every soon-to-be important grunge band. The next soundtrack he appeared on? Friends.
Nobody expects anything from Westerberg at this point, and the feeling's mutual. He's no longer trying to save music or even to sell a lot of records. Stereo is actually a double album, with the second disc, Mono, credited to his alter ego Grandpaboy (you can't say the man isn't self-aware). Disc 1 is meant to be about the songs, while Disc 2 is simply rock 'n' roll, the liner notes explain, "recorded poorly, played in a hurry, with sweaty hands and unsure reason. … It feels right. This is my blood." In case the point still doesn't get across, there's a whole song, "Knock It Right Out," to serve as a raison d'être.
But Mono doesn't rock any more or less than Stereo—one of the prettiest songs, "Silent Film Star," is on the former. And Stereo isn't any better recorded than Mono. Westerberg notes that it is mostly live, with few second takes. (As the liner notes say: "Unprofessional? Perhaps. Real? Unquestionably.") But he also plays every note, which means multi-tracking—so where do you draw the line of authenticity?
Westerberg can still turn a phrase and bang out memorably poignant hooks, but he just can't shake the specter of himself. As with all his solo records, it's hard to imagine Stereo reaching anyone who wasn't a Replacements fan. His current tour is going over well, but people surely want to hear the old songs most, a fact of life for every aging rocker. Twenty years into his career, Westerberg is basically in the same game as John Hiatt or Steve Earle—a singer-songwriter pure and simple. But he doesn't have the blues/folk roots of those guys or the same level of craft. He fancies himself a basement Jack Kerouac but without the innovation. Bob Mould is no Neil Young or Bob Dylan, but like them, he's at least willing to fall flat on his face. Rust never sleeps, it just sits at home making the same record over and over again.