When he blew off some smoke in the recording studio in February, Bob Mould didn't know he would literally be surrounded by it in the days leading up to his new album's release.
"We can't even leave the house, it's so bad," the ex-Minnesotan indie-rock legend said by phone last week from San Francisco.
The city he now calls home has been shrouded in smoke from wildfires burning all around Northern California. It made for a prophetically eerie setup to talk about an album whose opening line is, "The West Coast is covered in ash and flames/ Keep denying the winds of climate change."
"Unfortunately, this record seems perfectly timed," Mould noted.
The album is called "Blue Hearts," and it's a red-faced rager.
After turning in one of the most hopeful and ornamental albums of his nearly 40-year career in 2019, the aptly titled "Sunshine Rock," the 59-year-old singer-guitarist has gone the opposite direction with a vehement and raw album assessing the country he returned to last year after living abroad in Berlin.
Not only does the opening song "Heart on My Sleeve" echo Mould's environmentally gloomy 1990 effort "Black Sheets of Rain" — one of 24 albums featured in a massive new box set he's also putting out next month — many other songs on "Blue Hearts" hark back even further to the early days of his pioneering Minneapolis punk band Hüsker Dü.
Specifically, the new album offers strong reverberations of "Zen Arcade," the cult-loved 1983 Hüskers double album that found Mould and bandmate Grant Hart confronting Reagan-era homophobia, xenophobia, economic disparity and social division under a wall of bursting guitar and manic beats.
"It all started to seem really familiar: a telegenic president with evangelical support, signs of proto-fascism," Mould said of connecting the two fiery albums.
"It brought me back to who I was 36 years prior. I did try to put myself back in that space [of 'Zen Arcade'], not so much trying to re-create anything, but just to reflect on what I had as resources."
His main resource then and now was a high-revving, road-tested band that could hammer out a record in mere days, which is exactly what happened with "Blue Hearts."
After trying out the new tunes on a solo tour in January — "something Hüskers always did before a record, but I hadn't done it since 'Copper Blue' in '91," Mould noted — he met up with longtime backing duo Jon Wurster (drums) and Jason Narducy (bass) at Steve Albini's Chicago studio in early February.
Said Mould, "It was a pretty clear plan: There'll be no fussing around, no fancy finery involved; let's just go in the room and play these songs as hard as we can. We had talked about making a straight-ahead punk record for the last six years and finally got around to it.
"We blasted out the record, mixed it and mastered it all by March 1. And then boom: Just add pandemic!"
While it didn't foresee COVID-19, "Blue Hearts" rages against many other woes Mould sees in America at the moment: hateful pseudo-Christians in the sonic deluge "Forecast of Rain"; hopeless youths in the strongly Hüsker-like "Next Generation"; loss of truthful free speech in the vein-popping "American Crisis," with such lyrics as, "Wake up every day to see a nation in flames/ We click and we tweet and we spread these tales of blame."
Another case of uncanny timing: Mould debuted "American Crisis" via an interview with St. Paul radio station 89.3 the Current in early June, during the peak of protests and riots in the Twin Cities following George Floyd's death while in police custody. He would donate proceeds from the song to OutFront Minnesota and Minneapolis-based Black Visions Collective.
"It felt incredibly weird talking about my work, my songs, when clearly Black Lives Matter was the topic we should all be focused on," said Mould, noting that he lived for many years near Minneapolis' now-destroyed Third Precinct police headquarters.
"Just seeing the town that I grew up in as a musician and lived 11 years, seeing what went down there, was hard.
"I was there for the Hmong resettlement and remember that, and a lot of positive things in that city. I know there have been things that have not changed for the better over the last decade, but I didn't realize how systemic and deep the problems were there."
Putting his album in perspective, he said, "it needed to come out now. This is a protest record. It's an election year. I'm taking whatever goodwill and currency I've built up, and I'm going to spend it on these messages."
Mould was supposed to be back in Minneapolis in mid-October to celebrate his 60th birthday at First Avenue, part of his old haunt's 50th anniversary year.
He also planned to be on the road touting his box set "Distortion," the 24-CD collection featuring all of his studio albums plus live sets, outtakes and B-sides from his entire post-Hüsker Dü career, including his early-'90s trio Sugar. (There's also a vinyl set of the same name that covers just 1989-1995.)
"I was going to have a fun few months here to tie it all together," Mould said. "Instead, I'm locked inside the house."
Here's more of what Mould had to say from lockdown, edited for brevity.
On the stunning intensity of the song "American Crisis": "Ask Jason [Narducy, bassist] about it. He came over when I sang that one. I remember saying to him, 'These are hot words. You wanna get in on this?' He said, 'Oh [expletive] yeah! I'm in.'
"Those words are two and a half years old, and that song was kind of the start to trying to draw that distinction or parallels [to the '80s] with a telegenic president empowered by evangelicals, a president not saying 'AIDS' for five years — and now we have another president denying a pandemic is happening."
On the "Blue Hearts" track "Leather Dreams," one of his more overt songs about homosexuality: "I had three sleepless nights before that run of solo dates in January, where I was just writing like crazy, completely unfiltered stuff, and that song fell out in like 10 minutes. I looked at it and said, 'Why would I change a word of this?' [Laughs]
"There's clearly some inappropriate stuff there, some adult subject matter not everybody would be comfortable with. In keeping with the spirit of the record, though, I pulled back the curtain a little bit further to let you see a part of my life you may not be comfortable with. It's 2020, and this is what we have to talk about."
On the two "Distortions" box sets, out Oct. 23: "I thought 2020 was going to be an off year for me, so I thought the box set would kind of fill in the gap. But then 'Blue Hearts' got in the way.
"I thought it was worthwhile gathering up all the B-sides and random stuff, the Butch Walker tracks, Foo Fighters stuff, the 'Daily Show' demo. And I liked the idea of giving all the [studio] records more of a sense of place; reimagining all the artwork, digging deeper into the liner notes, and showing how important my environment at the time was to those records."
On which of the "Distortions" albums he thinks deserve reconsideration: "'LoudBomb' didn't get the attention it deserved, but that's because I just didn't promote it very hard. 'Modulate' got attention, but not all of it was good. To me, I think that whole middle period all deserves a second look.
"Twenty years later, pop music has changed enough to allow me to do more things. 'Modulate' came out, and then within months the [similarly electronic-flavored] Postal Service record came out, and maybe after that it wouldn't have seemed so drastic."
On the third anniversary of bandmate Grant Hart's death to cancer (the day before our interview): "I miss his presence. All of it. The historical acrimony between us is not quite as present as people thought it was. I was very lucky to get a couple days with him in Chicago [before his death]. We had a really good time and talked a lot about how to make the box set work [2017's "Savage Dü Young"] and got caught up on our respective lives. Grant unfortunately didn't get to see the final results of a lot of work on the box set, especially his artwork. For me, now, every time it comes time to think about album artwork I feel the loss of Grant. He always used to do that, and did it well."