20. Bob Mould, Workbook
To me, this album represents the beginning of summer. Online sources of reasonable repute list its release date as April 1989. That may very well be the case, but my memory of the album begins with our outgoing Program Director at the radio station taking the freshly arrived LP into our production studio and listening to it. He wrote “90FM” all over the sleeve and taped a review to the upper left hand corner. It was the last album he reviewed for the station before graduating, that ceremonial transition serving as a clear delineation from one year to the next, from spring to summer.
In last week’s One for Friday, I made a passing reference to the unofficial but keenly followed competition between Bob Mould and Grant Hart after Hüsker Dü acrimoniously broke up. They traded songwriting chores on all of the albums from the pile-driving trio throughout the nineteen-eighties, so each arguably had something to prove about who was the most vital voice in the acclaimed band. There was also the prospect that some of their mutual animosity would leak through into the lyrics, which meant the music held the promise of being the college rock equivalent of elaborately described car wrecks. For potential gawkers, the possibilities were luridly satisfying. Grant Hart struck first with the single “2541,” but Bob Mould left lasting wounds with his solo debut, Workbook.
Bob Mould used to claim that his only musical statement on the end of Hüsker Dü was contained on this album: Side One, Track Five, as he put it. That means “Poison Years,” an appropriately searing song with lyrical put downs like “In an act like Jesus Christ/Stare into the sun/You don’t see eye to eye with anyone.” (There may be other songs offering commentary on the toxic years in question; perhaps Mould offers further insight in his new book.) Effectively as that one song stands as a harsh dismissal of his former bandmate, it’s hard not to hear further recriminations throughout the album. Mould said at that time that he named the album Workbook in part because he saw all his records as being like books. Presumably the title further implied that he had some issues to work out, and the roiling rage shows up all over the place. The tensely soaring “Sinners and Their Repentances” notes “But now I can’t decide/If you told the truth or you lied/You seem to sin so well,” and the punchy “Compositions for the Young and Old” laments “Used to be that a handshake was a man’s word/Now we settle arguments in court/No one trusts anyone’s intentions anymore.” Then again, expecting to find transcriptions of personal misery in Mould’s lyrics is something of a fool’s endeavor. Bleak is his default setting. He could write an angry dirge about an ice cream cone. Come to think of it, he sort of did.
The album was seen as something of a departure for Mould, maybe just the sort of reinvention that’s expected when someone breaks free of a pointedly distinctive band. Hüsker Dü specialized in buzzsaw walls of potent guitar, bass and drums. Some of that reputation was due to residue left over from their earliest albums, especially Zen Arcade, which featured distortion and other amp-bending effects that intentionally reached assaultive levels. Their music had gotten progressively more melodic and thoughtful over the years, though. Mould may have based much of Workbook around sparer, more acoustic sounds, but, in many respects, it was also a natural extension of where he left off with Hüsker Dü’s final album, Warehouse: Songs and Stories. The chiming lushness of “Dreaming, I Am” would have fit in particularly well on the earlier record.
Unsurprisingly, it was the bright, brisk lead single “See a Little Light” that got the most airplay at the station. If the album represent the beginning of summer to me, this is the song that most clearly scores those months in my memory. And yet, as much affection as I have for the song, it’s not the one that calls up the strongest associations for me. That would be the track that proceeds it on the album, the mournful, beautiful “Heartbreak a Stranger”.This is the song that belongs to the other part of that summer, away from the shining sun. This is the song played late at night in a darkened studio, feeling every bit of that heartbreak as Mould plucks away at his guitar strings. On an album that’s theoretically the first unimpeded expression of Bob Mould’s voice, this is the song that brings that voice the clearest, in all its exquisite agony. At least that’s what it sounded like to me at an age when exquisite agony was about the most romantic thing in the world.