If age is what it takes to be this passionate, how can I unleash the 53 year old inside? Simply put, “Beauty & Ruin” is a masterful, exciting and joyously cathartic journey through pain and loss to an understanding and appreciation of life on the other side from an artist who has spent over 30 years grappling with these very themes. For Bob Mould, “beauty” and “ruin” are flip sides of the same coin, two conjoined states that can’t exist without the other, and the album works its way from desolation and defeat to jubilance in 3-4 song chunks. A heady (and potentially problematic) thematic arc for sure, and the conceit wouldn't matter if the songs didn’t hold up – but sweet Jebus, do they! The fact that a full third of the material here sounds like it could have been written during sessions for “Flip Your Wig” and that they feel thrilling rather than desperate or pandering is a testament to Mould’s skills as a songwriter. There is a vigor to these performances that belies Mould’s age. Artists in their 50s are expected to mellow and reflect on their mortality (Dylan’s excellent “Time Out of Mind” being the template)…well, this Bob didn't get the memo! He thrashes his way through the songs here (abetted greatly by longtime foils Jason Narducy on bass and Jon Wurster on drums) with the same level of energy that he had in the latter days of Husker Du and throughout his tenure in Sugar.
And that is truly one of Mould’s greatest gifts – he is able to look to his past for reference points without ever becoming beholden to them or making the songs sound like retreads of past glories. Opener “Low Season” swims in the same gray seas as 1990’s “Black Sheets of Rain” and stunning centerpiece “The War” sounds like an ace lost song from “File Under: Easy Listening”. A nice little trick is the one Mould pulls on the album’s two final tunes. If this were truly a “middle age” album, the thing would bow out gracefully with the sweet reverie of “Let The Beauty Be”, one of the most truly lovely songs in Mould’s canon. When the song fades, however, the band kicks back in with the raging but upbeat “Fix It”, a fake-out coda that ends the album on a triumphant note. If 2012’s “Silver Age” found Mould coming to terms with his legacy, “Beauty & Ruin” finds him embracing it…the whole, bloody, joyous, messy lot of it...and creates what might stand as the best solo album of his career in the process.