Diminishing Returns
Michael Penn and Bob Mould Come Back with a Whimper

I’m not one for celebrity culture.

I watch a lot of movies, and I honestly couldn’t care less which movie star is sleeping with which other movie star, or which ones are getting divorced or having kids or converting each other to Scientology. It’s all about the work, not the personal lives of the artists to me – it’s the kind of attitude that lets me continue my Woody Allen fandom in blissful ignorance. Likewise, I listen to a lot of music, and I only care about the private lives of the musicians if they invite me to, by writing songs or albums about their relationships or their kids. But even then, it doesn’t matter – Trent Reznor claims to write about his personal pain, but he’s probably full of shit, and I don’t mind. He writes good songs.

There is one bizarre exception, though: I can’t seem to mention either Michael Penn or Aimee Mann without bringing up the other. It’s just a fascinating relationship to me – how often do two like-minded songwriters of the caliber of Penn and Mann get married, remain happy, and refuse the temptation to write songs about each other? They have so far spared us what could be a Buckingham/Nicks situation by keeping their private lives private. They play on each other’s albums, and they obviously push each other to keep writing great tunes.

This year, Mann and Penn have done something so interesting that it’s impossible not to mention them as a pair: they released his-and-hers concept albums. Mann led it off in May with her amazing The Forgotten Arm, the tale of a boxer who returns from war to a faltering relationship and a battle with alcohol. And now, here’s Penn with Mr. Hollywood Jr. 1947, his long-gestating fifth album, and surprise surprise – it’s conceptually based around people living and loving in post-war California. Penn’s record is not as tightly plotted as Mann’s, but both seem to have found themselves needing to invent characters and weave stories in order to keep writing their trademark sad songs. That’s right, they’re that happy together.

I’m just kidding, of course, but both albums are chock full of morose lyrics, supported by classic chamber-pop melodies. There is another similarity, too – after two underperforming albums on Epic, Penn has followed his wife’s example and started up his own label, Mimeograph. (Penn’s label is distributed by SpinArt.) The process of leaving the majors and setting up his own home may explain the long wait between albums – Penn’s last was MP4, in 2000, which came and went with barely a whimper. At least, I hope that’s what took up all the time, because there’s little evidence of that half-decade on Mr. Hollywood Jr.

I always hate having to write bad reviews of albums I have been eagerly anticipating, but Penn’s latest is sadly underwhelming. Here’s a guy who has made a name as an albums artist – every song on his first four records is good. March remains his most successful, thanks to his only hit, “No Myth,” but those who bought the album found a tone-setter for Penn’s career. Every album features winding melodies that take two or three listens to sink in, but once they do, they’re impossibly catchy, and they leave you wondering why you found them so impenetrable in the first place. His sound is guitar-driven, yet almost patchwork in the way it makes room for drum loops, retro-sounding keyboards and harmonies, shifting on a dime.

Perhaps he considered such consistency a rut, but Hollywood is Penn’s spottiest recording to date. It’s doubly unfortunate when you consider that the album is a mere 38 minutes long, counting the unlisted acoustic bonus track. It starts off strong – the first four songs, in fact, are classic Michael Penn. “Walter Reed” is a slow builder, but the deceptively jaunty chorus leads to the hook line, “Every good thing I had abandoned me.” Hummable melodies supporting lyrics full of misery is a Penn (and Mann, for that matter) trademark, and he carries it through the sad goodbye of “Denton Road,” the broken hearts of “Room 712, The Apache” and the deceptions of “Pretending.”

At this point in my first listen-through, I admit that I was clearing space on my top 10 list for this record. But with track five, Mr. Hollywood Jr. just goes off the rails, and only rarely does it right itself. While the packaging may promise 12 new Michael Penn songs, three of those listed tracks are minute-long interludes, and they’re almost one right after the other. “The Television Set Waltz,” at least, has notes and a melody, but “The Transistor” and “18 September” (the date the Department of Defense was formed in 1947) are formless noise. The latter two are separated by “Mary Lynn,” an experiment in repetition and drum loops that just doesn’t work.

So all of a sudden, we’re on track nine, the start of a three-song stretch that can best be described as achingly average. There’s nothing wrong with “You Know How,” but there’s nothing right with it, either. It’s perhaps the first Michael Penn song I have heard that just lays there. “A Bad Sign” sounds like it could have been written for Sheryl Crow. “O.K.” is certainly better, but it takes until “On Automatic” for the ship to stop taking on water. That song is another classic, with terrific glimmer-of-hope lyrics and driving acoustic guitars. Less than three minutes later, it’s over, and so is the album, save for a hidden track called “Millionaire” that sounds like a home demo.

Granted, I may need to give this album a few more listens before declaring it a misfire. Also granted, there are moments of brilliance here that rival anything Michael Penn has done in the past. The sound is wonderfully retro all the way through, and the lyrics are full of Penn’s usual wordplay. (“When you think he likes you then you like the way he thinks,” from “You Know How,” is a typical example.) But no other album of his has fallen this flat for me. Regardless of the five-year wait, I wish Penn had taken a little more time on this one, because what’s here is an EP of great stuff and a depressing amount of half-baked filler.

I will also admit a certain level of expectation playing into my reaction. Michael Penn’s throwaway songs would exponentially enrich the catalogs of most other working musicians – he’s one of the best American songwriters, and hearing him rely on simple chords and melodies is depressing to me. I’m sure many will listen to Mr. Hollywood Jr. and find nothing to complain about. For me, though, five years is a long time, and this album should have been a lot better, or at least a lot more consistent. Penn originally announced this record as part one, with a second half coming soon, and I hope that’s still in the cards, because the Michael Penn I know and love is capable of more and better than just this in five years.

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I have the same problem with Bob Mould.

The guy’s a legend, thanks to his groundbreaking run with Husker Du in the ‘80s and, to a lesser degree, his power-pop streak with Sugar in the ‘90s. He knows his way around a melody, and he all but redefined the sound of alternative-rock guitar (I hate phrases like that), bringing a stinging depth to his punky pop tunes. Consistency is also a Mould hallmark – after Husker Du broke up, Mould released two fantastic solo records (Workbook and Black Sheets of Rain), then formed Sugar, his most successful project.

And then, somehow, it all fell apart. Mould has had four solo albums since Sugar’s demise, and only one of them (the self-titled effort from 1996) has been worthy of his legacy. He appears to have grown tired of the guitar-rock sound he perfected and explored, as evidenced by the electronics and dance beats of Modulate, his unfortunate 2002 effort. It’s not that I’m against Mould dabbling in electronic textures, but the album simply didn’t work – the songs and their production clashed.

Mould has returned to guitars on Body of Song, his sixth solo album and his first in three years, but the depressing lack of inspiration continues. Mould will never be my favorite songwriter, but he’s better than the simple nothings that populate this record. Sadly, he’s also not yet given up his obsession with dance music, as evidenced by “(Shine Your) Light Love Hope,” an experiment that fails so completely that it’s a glaring embarrassment. It’s essentially one verse, repeated for five minutes in a Cher-like vocoder voice while the drums thump and flail ineffectually. Let’s just say it’s not exactly “Hoover Dam.”

But I do wonder if I would like this record had it come from a guy not enshrined in the pop-rock pantheon. How much of my dislike of “Light Love Hope” is really me wishing he would write something like Zen Arcade again? Am I holding Bob Mould back? If he were not tied to his past, would he be able to really stretch out and make something mindblowing? It’s not like Body of Song is a bad record, for the most part, it’s just not up to par with Mould’s work from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Is that a fair comparison anymore? Can Mould be expected to compete with his 22-year-old self, or even his 32-year-old self?

Taken on its own, Body of Song has some decent bits and some less decent bits, and is all in all pretty average. Good stuff includes “Always Tomorrow,” a slinky, bass-driven nightmare, and “Underneath Days,” a minor-key monster. “Days of Rain” is a Mike Roe-style ballad that fares better than the other torch song, the goopy “High Fidelity.” The record ends with a pair of epics – the dismissible “Gauze of Friendship” (which actually includes the line, “Nothing matters when hearts go pitter-patter”), and “Beating Heart the Prize,” a thundering steamroller of a thing that closes Body of Song convincingly.

It’s about a B-minus, if I were to assign letter grades, and if it weren’t an album by someone with such a vast and influential catalog behind him, I would leave it at that. Is it fair to dock points from Mould for not producing another Candy Apple Grey or Copper Blue? It’s complicated, since the legacy is probably the only reason one would anticipate buying Body of Song. It’s not just an album, it’s the New Bob Mould Album, and if he’s willing to take the sales his name will bring in, he should be ready for the comparisons with his best work. The Rolling Stones, for example, should be prepared for A Bigger Bang to be held up next to Exile on Main Street, a contest the new record has no hope of winning.

Is it fair? Probably not, but there it is. Mould can’t escape the comparisons, he can only make the records he wants to make and hope that people don’t expect masterpieces each time out. So let’s do this comparison thing right. Body of Song is not nearly as good as Mould’s work with Husker Du. It is also not as good as his run with Sugar, or his first two solo albums. However, it does slide nicely into his latter-day catalog, which shines a little less brightly than any of his other music. It’s a valiant effort to steer his electronics obsession into safer, more guitar-driven waters, but it lacks inspiration, and has no defining spark. If you’ve liked what Bob Mould has done for the last decade, you will like this. If you’re looking for something on par with his golden age, keep looking. Body of Song is not it.

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Next week, probably Richard Thompson, unless something more exciting occurs to me.

See you in line Tuesday morning.