Political awareness is ultimately frightening. Most of us – or at least most people who would buy a Mudhoney album – are apprehensively aware of the social/political mess that currently envelopes the United States. Some find themselves radicalized, spreading the gospel of St. Noam; others become moist-eyed and introspective. Still others crack inappropriate jokes and seek to have as much sex as possible before the dirty bomb drops. In the first category, put U2; in the second, Green Day; in the third, place grunge progenitor turned alt-rock dinosaur Mudhoney and their scythe-sharp protest song, “Hard-On for War.”
Hailing from Seattle and founded at about the same time as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, Mudhoney is the ugly stepchild of grunge. While the band features the same heavy, Iggy-meets-Ozzy, mid-tempo fuzz that kept many a Washingtonian well stocked with smack, lyricist/frontman Mark Arm never quite nurtured the knack for Nirvana’s morbid poetry, or Pearl Jam’s dorky rabble-rousing. Instead, he opted for a punk rock sneer, which led to music that was, in the paradox of grunge, more accessible, yet less catchy. And only now, with nearly twenty years of music behind them, Mudhoney’s message is at last wholly relevant.
Under a Billion Suns leads off with a frantic rhythm courtesy of the underrated and underappreciated Dan Peters, followed soon after by the trademark dueling guitars of Arm and lead guitarist, Steve Turner. Held together by the simple but muscular bass lines of Guy Maddison (Mudhoney’s only non-founding member, having replaced founding bassist Matt Lukin on 2003’s hit-or-(but mostly)-miss Since We’ve Become Translucent), the song, “Where Is the Future,” is vintage Mudhoney: Slow, somber, blues-based rock delivered through a surfeit of distortion and snide howling. But the band still has a few tricks up its sleeve. First, a horn arrangement leaps into the mix during the bridge, calling to mind fellow alt cult leader Rocket From the Crypt. The second surprise comes when Arm intones, “I want a world ruled by giant brains / Not by small-minded, arrogant fools.”
Okay, Howard Zinn it ain’t, but for Mudhoney, it’s a lot. For a band founded in the apathetic, slack Sub Pop scene of the late ’80s, and lyrically obsessed with sleaze, beer and occasionally sleazy beer, the sudden development of a rudimentary political consciousness is shocking enough. Not to imply that the band’s scuzziness gets lost and forgotten; the up-with-orgasms anthem, “Let’s Drop In,” is a masterpiece of pud-funk, channeling a consultation between Drs. John, Seuss and Ruth, while the end of the album features some weak attempts at progressive-rock bombast (the same indulgences that sunk Translucent). But it’s the political songs, as inept and blunt as they may be, that really shine. Leading with the melody line from ’60s floor-shaker “Hey Sah-Lo-Ney,” “Hard-On for War” asks Pete Seeger’s immortal question: “Where have all the flowers gone?” Mudhoney’s answer: “They’re dead, let’s screw.” With the guitars sounding like they were recorded at the bottom of a marsh, the song epitomizes the now-defunct Seattle sound and passes commentary on Mudhoney’s place therein. When Arm sings, “I’ve become a dirty old man / With a hard-on for war,” the lines ring true, far truer than the autumnal procrastination that the “mature” Green Day mined for Grammy gold. After all, the members of Mudhoney have always been dirty old men, erectile and dysfunctional, but never both at once – so now that the anxiety of wartime has penetrated their haze, what other response could they possible have?
[Alex Benowitz-Fredericks enjoys long walks on the beach, duck-and-cover drills, and smugly saying, “I told you so” when the bio-terror holocaust finally comes.]