Bob Mould says he has lightened up. He emphatically insists upon it. When pressed, he'll point to the opening track of his riveting new album, "District Line," to try to prove it.

"'Stupid Now' is just a hilarious track to start the record with," he says. "There's that plaintive beginning. And then when the first chorus hits, I was hoping people would suddenly realize it's not a downer at all."

Forgive us if we don't burst into laughter right away, Bob.

Mould plays First Avenue Wednesday night.

After nearly three decades of hearing Mould play frosty, downtrodden, bitter-pill music -- going back to the Reagan-era angst and aggression of his fabled Minneapolis band Hüsker Dü -- fans probably aren't expecting or even hoping to find any humor on the former Twin Citian's latest. But Mould is not lying -- it is there.

It's there in the jangly midtempo rocker "Who Needs to Dream?" when he sings, "The shapeshifting, weightlifting/Hope the presentation will catch his eye" -- likely a self-deprecating line about his own recently shorn build. And it's there in the whirring, synthesizer-filled track "Shelter Me," with lines such as "Keep me from reality/Keep me in suspended disbelief" -- which is either about a blind romance or American ignorance. As for "Stupid Now," those lyrics include, "Haven't I been enough of a fool for you?" For once, it seems Mould's as angry with and tired of himself as he has been with other people on other albums.

"Stupid Now" is one of the many songs on "District Line" that should immediately sound familiar to fans of Mould's best-known solo work and especially his '90s albums with Sugar. The latter half of the album especially rocks with a classic air, including the single "The Silence Between Us."

"It's strictly a guitar-composition record. That really makes it a lot more familiar and comfortable right off the bat," Mould said by phone two weeks ago from Washington, D.C., his home since 2002.

D.C. is, of course the "District" in the new album's title, and the city's role in defining the album is not to be underplayed. "One of the definitions of the 'District Line' is the boundary of the city, and especially the boundary around my incredibly small life here," he explained.

Mould's music has often reflected his whereabouts. Minnesota's icy winters and blue-collar attitude figured heavily in his Hüsker Dü work (could "Celebrated Summer" have been written anywhere else?). Some of Sugar's songs fit the sunny, laid-back attitude of Austin, Texas, where Mould lived in the early '90s (never mind the seething "Beaster" EP). And his ill-received, electronica-styled 2002 "Modulate" was a clear product of his time soaking up New York City's nightlife.

His last album, 2005's comeback-hyped "Body of Song," included tunes he had written over several years in different cities. But "District Line" was -- with the exception of the 1988-penned closer "Walls of Time" -- written entirely at home in D.C.

"Being in one place consistently probably has a lot to do with the coherency of it," he said. "Now that I've settled into routines here and have a really solid group of people around me, I've been able to integrate and observe and draw on daily life a lot better."

One of Mould's recent observations brings up the other definition of "District Line": something that people in Washington say a lot.

"D.C. was the first place where I was cognizant of the question, 'What do ya do?'" he said. "It's often the first question from strangers here.

"It's a fair enough question, but I guess I was put off by it at first. My frustration would be exacerbated by my response, which would be, 'Oh, I'm a musician,' and they would be like, 'I didn't know anyone could make a living at that,' and then walk away."

Mould has indeed made a living at it, often with a shrewd business acumen. "District Line" is one in a series of unique record deals in which the album is essentially licensed out to a record company for a limited time, in this case Anti- Records. The label will share in profits for things such as TV usage (Mould's music has been used in numerous movies and his song "Dog on Fire" is used as the theme for "The Daily Show"). Mould, however, owns the master recordings.

It's a deal he insisted upon after well-documented problems with SST Records, the fabled punk label that was home to Hüsker Dü before the band's two Warner Bros. albums. For years, SST was accused of not paying artists due royalties.

"They actually paid up a couple years ago," Mould said. "I don't know how closely it correlated to real life, all I know is what they gave me. I was happy to at least get something."

Talk of Hüsker Dü's SST catalog being recaptured and reissued has gone nowhere thanks to ever-prevalent noncommunication between Mould and ex-bandmates Grant Hart and Greg Norton. This January marked the 20th anniversary of the band's split. Mould marked the occasion by proudly posting a copy of his original, lawyer-penned resignation letter on his Boblog.

"Like a lot of great decisions, that's one that should have been made sooner than it was," he said two weeks ago. OK, so no remorse, then.

Mould doesn't discount his years in the Hüskers, though. His 2005 return-to-rock tour (documented on last year's "Circle of Friends" DVD) marked the first time he played his old songs live with a band since the '80s. His tour that kicks off Wednesday at First Avenue will feature the same game plan and band, although drummer Brendan Canty, who plays on the album, couldn't tour due to other commitments.

"Brendan and Jason [Narducci, bassist] really wanted to dive back into the older material on the 2005 tour," Mould said, "and I suppose I was more comfortable with those songs being my songs instead of Hüskers songs or Sugar songs."

"It wasn't the scenario that I imagined, which was that I'd be playing those songs and they would take me back to the time and places where they were written. That didn't happen. It was actually really fun."

Fun? Go figure.


In a free land

Washington, D.C., is the latest in a string of new hometowns for Bob Mould, who left Minneapolis in 1988 following the breakup of Hüsker Dü.

  1. 1988-89: Pine City, Minn. Holed up in a farmhouse to work on his first solo album, "Workbook."
  2. 1989-93: New York City. Produced his second solo disc, "Black Sheets of Rain," and then bounced between NYC; Stoughton, Mass., and Athens, Ga., to ready Sugar's 1992 debut, "Copper Blue."
  3. 1993-96: Austin, Texas. A quieter (and more affordable) locale from Sugar's whirlwind heyday of touring to Mould's return to a solo career with his 1996 self-titled album. At his last show as an Austin resident, he urged fans to "take care of this city," then facing a dot-com boom and gentrification.
  4. 1996-2002: New York City again. After making 1998's "The Last Dog & Pony Show," he quit touring and got turned on to dance clubs and electronic music, resulting in the 2002 electro-rock album "Modulate" and his DJ alter-ego LoudBomb.
  5. 2002-present: Washington, D.C. Mould wanted out of NYC but still wanted to be near it, and still live in a healthy gay community. D.C. friends include electronic musician Richard Morel, with whom he hosts the Blowoff dance series, and ex-Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty.