What makes a songwriter so good? What bit of their personality and their life experience makes their particularl brand of songcraft go beyond good to brilliant?
Rarely if ever do I consider my influences. Most of the time, it is much easier - and truthfully to the point - to just say I am influenced by any and all music I hear. After all, if I hate a song, I am not likely to copy it or borrow from it, and if I do, I'll be changing it in a way that allows me to not hate the part I steal. But, rarely do I discuss in depth some real influence, whether apparent or not, that reaches beyond just words and fingers on a fretboard, and mixes with the soul.
Nick Hornby, in the beginning of his collection of essay entitled Songbook, begins describing a way of discussing music that transcends and is apart from emotion (or so it seems - I haven't finished the book). In a way, Hornby seems to suggest that the best music is not temporal - it exists as an expertly crafted tune aside from and without our personal experience and memories attached to it. He even goes so far as to say that people who only like a song for its way of helping them recall a particular memory or moment or feeling, don't truly like music at all. They just like to be reminded of that moment.
I like Hornby the writer, but for the most part think that the last part of that statement, that people who like a song for emotional or temporal reasons don't really like music, is dead wrong, stupid, prickish, elitist and pompous (which describes most of the way people think about me and my music elitism, by the way). I think songs can be great because of our emotions and connections to memories. And yes, maybe that makes writing about them more memoir than discussion of what a collection of aural instances combine to make one excellent-no-matter-how-I-feel almight fuck of a rock song (or blues, jazz, whatever). But we need emotion, and music is one of the best forms of communicating human emotion and humanity itself - love, loss, and so on.
It struck me today as I listened to Workbook, The Last Dog and Pony Show, and Besides - all albums by Bob Mould or one of his groups (in this case, Sugar) - that Bob Mould is a huge influence on me and my music. My next thought was of Hornby's book, though, and what my emotional connection to Bob Mould's music was. And I realized that one of the points that Hornby makes was spot on - music is truly great when it transcends our emotions and temporal connections to it, and becomes great to us all the time. And that is when I realized: Bob Mould is a fucking fantastic songwriter, all broken bones and stomped on hearts and rage and fury. But for me, despite how much I really relate to his music, his music is timeless, not temporal. And I now realize how big of an influence on my songwriting he truly is, and how great his music really is, on a scale that can't be measured by how I feel or felt when I listen/listened to it for the first/current time.
Let me explain another way: Pearl Jam is my favorite band of all time. I have made this statement a half a dozen million times. And, frankly, it might still be true. But it might not be, either. Because, for some of Peal Jam's music, it just doesn't do anything for me anymore. Ten sounds dated to me now - I still love it, but it is attached to my memories of a time and place. Vitalogy, on the other hand, is a remarkable album that has stuck with me. Yes, it is a hard album, and I find it uplifting because its sound of struggle. I do have memories wrapped around the first time I heard it, my discussions with friends about it, and so on and so forth... but those aren't the first things that come to my mind when I hear those songs. My first thought is to turn it up. Loud.
The same can be said for No Code and Pearl Jam's self-titled record (or, if you will, "Avacado"). Or Son Volt's Trace, or "When the Levee Breaks" by Led Zeppelin, or "Castles Made of Sand" by Hendrix. Some Beatles songs remind me of my ex-fiance. Some remind me of their greatness and nothing else. (quite a few make me miss Lennon.)
I discovered Bob Mould via The Last Dog and Pony Show (LDPS from here on in), sitting in the "Top Shelf" rack at WIUS AM 1570 Student Radio at the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. There it was, mixed in with so much thoughtless music - sugary pop, avant noise rock, the latest indie darlings. Don't get me wrong, some of that "top shelf" was really good. I met a lot of bands there that I still have a love affair with today. I also met a lot of bands that I would've revoked their right to make "music" right then and there. Anyway... there it was. The Last Dog and Pony Show. Supposedly the last big, loud Bob Mould album. I didn't even know who this guy was. But I found out, and right quick, too. It wasn't long before Beaster by Sugar was in constant rotation on my radio show, and other treats by Mould, Sugar, and Husker Du.
Beaster and LDPS enchanted me. I loved the songs, loved the guitar sound - God, that guitar sound! - loved the open nature of the lyrics. It was emotional, visceral, real. Real human pain, real human triumph, real human glory, real human struggle. And I soaked it all in. The sad thing was, like most records I love, these weaved their way in and out of my life. I loved it when I remembered them... but my constant diet of new music left me putting them back on my shelf, usually only to be retrieved whenever I might hear a tune on the radio or hear about a new release.
As time has moved on, though, my record collection has grown, and I've added to it some important Bob Mould albums. Copper Blue, Workbook, Besides, and File Under: Easy Listening are all there to be listened to in my collection. I've been searching out Husker Du records, trying to find ones that aren't listed at $18.99 or $19.99 (this is hard to do, by the way - apparently wanting to listen to older music from Minneapolis has it's price - The Replacements' records seem to have this problem, as well. No word as of yet on old Soul Asylum.). Bob Mould's new solo record, Life and Times, is pre-ordered and should hit my doorstep sometime this week.
But it was Nick Hornby's opening essay in Songbook, and the first single off of Life and Times, "I'm Sorry Baby, But You Can't Stand In My Light Anymore," that really made me reconsider Bob Mould and his music in a different light. As in, not just enjoyable pop music, or genre-changing cornerstones, or part-inventor of alternative rock. But as an influence, as a major influence, and as music that has stayed relevant and important since the day I heard it. And I can't deny it anymore. There is no emotional involvement for me with this music. As emotional and soul-baring as it is, I've never made that personal connection. BUT, despite that - maybe even because of it - this is one of my favorite songwriters of all time. Bob Mould is a major influence, a fantastic songwriter, a musical icon and more. His songs do hit home, and hit home hard. It's just that I've never really used his music to "get through" anything. It's too good for that. It's too good to just borrow to deal with pain or swoon with love, and then discard once I've internalized or moved on from whatever situation merited the need for some serious emotional ass-kicking. "Moving Trucks" could have been the greatest song for moving my ex-girlfriend out (or for her, as she was moving out). But it wasn't, because it was too good for that.
There are happier songwriters, better singers, more technically gifted guitarists. Still, the stew that Mould has cooked up for us as listeners time and time again is superior than so much music out there.
I'm not sure what makes it a cut above the rest, exactly. Maybe all things that are transcendent are that way - that's why they transcend, because we can't describe why, or how, or what. They're just great. And Bob Mould is just great. In whatever moment you find yourself in - personal or otherwise.