Album of the Week, May 25: Workbook by Bob Mould

MouldDreamingBob Mould was a member of one of the pioneering bands of American punk, Hüsker Dü. As the guitarist and shared vocalist and songwriter of that hardcore legend, he established himself as a master of the melodically loud and the passionately thrashy. Wedding introspective — often angrily so — lyrics to breakneck rhythms and sonic bursts of noisy guitar, Mould and his companions were rightly known as masters of the genre and musicians to be reckoned with. After a decade of critical acclaim, mixed commercial success, internal tensions, and personal drama, the trio disintegrated in 1988. Mould sequestered himself at home, writing and recording an even more intimate set of reflections on life. With Pere Ubu’s rhythm section of Anton Fier and Tony Maimone providing a sold backing, Mould shattered expectations, throwing in a hefty dose of acoustic guitar work and adding cellist Jane Scarpantoni to the potent mix. In the end, he crafted a solo debut that would turn out to be not just his finest hour but a different kind of pioneering effort that helped change the face of alternative rock.

Title Workbook
Act Bob Mould
Label Virgin Release Date April 1989
Producer Bob Mould
U.S. Chart  127 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Sunspots
  2. Wishing Well
  3. Heartbreak A Stranger
  4. See A Little Light
  5. Poison Years
  6. Sinners and Their Repentances
  7. Brasilia Crossed With Trenton
  8. Compositions For the Young and Old
  9. Lonely Afternoon
  10. Dreaming, I Am
  11. Whichever Way the Wind Blows

Nothing could make it more clear that Mould was breaking new ground for himself than Sunspots. The lovely instrumental is fragile and acoustic, showing off Mould’s guitar talents in ways that his Hüsker days only hinted at. It’s a beautiful opener, inviting the listener into Mould’s world. The strident opening chords of Wishing Well make it clear that this is no acoustic folk/jazz disc, but Scarpantoni’s sublime cello work further distances it from the punk thrash of yesteryear. The lyric is classic Mould, a clear-eyed look at the past with a mixture of anger, resignation, and nostalgia. The powerful playing — including one of his finest solos — bolsters the underlying note of hope, setting the stage for the rest of the disc.

Heartbreak A Stranger is one of Mould’s finest songs, from the title to the quiet opening chords straight through to the final notes. It’s a stunning declaration of independence and repudiation of an abusive relationship. Well suited to both his broken band and fractured romantic life, it’s a powerful song of discovery. See A Little Light picks up the hints of hope, building a stronger framework of cautious optimism. Expanding Mould’s sonic palette, it’s fairly straightforward power pop, executed masterfully. Poison Years returns to a darker lens, surging with brooding notes in a strong effort to purge the toxins of the past. Another wrenching introspection, it closes the album’s first movement nicely.

Sinners and Their Repentances brings the acoustic guitar and cello back to the foreground as Mould begins a reflection on nostalgia, personal history, and redemption. It’s a beautiful song, dark but lovely, with Scarpantoni providing a fragile sense of hope under one of Mould’s nicest vocals. Brasilia Crossed With Trenton ranks as one of the most curious titles in rock, but it works. In the popular consciousness, Brazil and New Jersey are fairly disparate; their respective capitals are one of the oldest cities in the Americas and one of the newest. With a rollicking beat from all three supporting performers, Mould conjures up the sense of a train ride, the very ride that his title ponderings refutes. A stark look at the realities of life and the practical needs of modern survival, it’s a wonderful song. Compositions For the Young and Old is more straightforward but no less powerful. Using an old songbook as a metaphor, Mould yearns for simpler days while recognizing that they might not really have been that simple. This trio of songs forms not just the literal center of the album, but its rich, complex heart.

Lonely Afternoon shakes off the personalized abstraction of the last few songs, presenting a simple, demanding narrative of need and determination. Over an almost folky backdrop, Mould crafts a strong rock song of personal reinvention. The title metaphor works remarkably well, and the marriage of Mould’s strong vocal and the sympathetic backing band propel the listener toward the album’s strong finish. Dreaming, I Am is a puzzle of words, a wonderful spiral of images and thoughts that shows Mould’s real growth as a lyricist. It’s a remarkable song and another clear attempt to shake off the past both as a musician and as a person. In many ways, Workbook could have ended here. Instead, Mould provides a coda with Whichever Way the Wind Blows. A reminder that he can rock with the best of them, it blends his more familiar punk sound with a heavy metal overlay. It’s also a dark metaphorical journey, reminding us that the easiest path may be fraught with its own dark dangers. A warning, a hope, and a release, it’s a perfect wrap-up to an amazing journey.

Emerging from his past without dismissing it, Mould presents one of the finest the-band-is-behind-me statements since the breakup of the Beatles. He also paved the way for his alt-rock peers to reinvent themselves, showing the way for acoustic elements to map new, powerfully emotive paths. Bold, powerful, and original Workbook reassured the world that Bob Mould’s journey didn’t end with Hüsker Dü… it had barely begun.

FURTHER LISTENING: I’m not a big fan of American hardcore punk, so I’m not a good source for Mould’s work with his famous band. Both New Day Rising and Warehouse are remarkable statements, however. After his initial solo effort, Mould got noisy again with Black Sheets of Rain, a very mixed bag with a couple of high points. He then went back to the power trio model, forming Sugar. That band released two albums and an EP, also a bit of a mixed bag. Copper Blue has some strong moments, but the noise-to-grandeur ratio is a bit off. Two of Mould’s best songs are Sugar tracks however, the dramatic Hoover Dam and the earnest If I Can’t Change Your Mind. Returning to solo work, he turned out a couple of workmanlike discs before shocking  his fans with a departure into electronica with the passionate but flawed Modulate. Since then he’s turned out a regular flow of solid albums, the best of which are 2005’s impressive electro-punk Body of Song and 2012’s solid Silver Age.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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