As Bob Mould continues to enjoy his best life as a solo artist in 2019, his 1989 solo debut remains his most enigmatic
It was probably meant to jar us. Hüsker Dü fans only had to wait about a year and a half after that legendary punk band quit to get our hands on Bob Mould’s first solo album, Workbook. And the opening track, “Sunspots” – a lovely, soothing instrumental in the vein of Leo Kottke or some other fancy-pants guitarist none of us gave much thought to – floated out as a hushed statement from Mould that he had changed.
Well, duh. Hüsker Dü fanatics (are there any that aren’t fanatical?) knew all the sad stories of the band’s demise. Ever-rumors of in-band divisions, tour manager passing away during their final tour in 1987, and just the sheer heft of work that the trio did in their blazing eight-year existence would’ve made even Hercules need to take some time to go lay on a beach and nap for a while. Check: seven consistently amazing albums (two of which were double albums), an EP, numerous singles, and an endless touring schedule through mostly dank dives. Oh, and for their first few years, they were mostly focused on being the fastest band on earth. They expended the energy of a band that lasted 20 years at least.
VIDEO: Land Speed Record
Admittedly, by 1987, the earliest Hüsker Dü fans had moved on, thinking the last couple albums were cleaned-up major label affairs. I was not one of those. I think Warehouse: Songs and Stories is underrated, if for just the sheer number of memorable hooks. Admittedly, for the show I saw on that tour, the band was sort of going through the motions, playing Warehouse straight through while barely looking at each other, Of course Hüsker Dü going through the motions is like most bands having their most vicious show. But you could see in Mould’s eyes, when he wasn’t staring down at the floor, that a change was needed.
AUDIO: “Standing in the Rain” by Hüsker Dü
So when Workbook arrived in 1989, most reviewers focused on the album’s instrumentally varied, rhythmically subtle, melodically pretty and overall gauzier vibe. That was to be expected. It was the lean image on the back cover though that really made you think. There’s Mould sitting there, still holding a cigarette, but – unlike most of us, who might’ve sat around and cried and drank and ate ice cream for a few months after seeing our band fall apart – it seemed Mould took the doc’s orders and was presently more svelte than he’d ever been, wearing a cardigan, and placed in some sun-dappled barn somewhere, rather than leaning over his Flying V in a dank club.
VIDEO: Hüsker Dü on The Late Show with Joan Rivers
And so here, visually and sonically, is where Mould really aimed to set himself apart as “the serious one.” In 1989, the stereotype of hardcore punks as kind of thoughtless, speed-addled, screaming goons was just starting to crack, and Workbook was a major step in tearing that stereotype down. Of course, Hüsker Dü already had made the case that hardcore as a genre could expand out into psychedelic territories and pure pop hooks. Mould took those tendencies, pulled way back on the distortion, and sculpted his characteristic melodies and layered, screamed back-up harmonies into crisp, beguiling rock epiphanies.
The acoustic gleam of the second track, “Wishing Well,” has Mould claiming his wishing well has run dry, less a sad note than a reference to his previous ambitions shifting. “I wish for things I never had.” Then the initial “Welcome to the new Mould” moment coalesces perfectly in the single, “See a Little Light,” one of the most beaming pop songs of the decade.
VIDEO: Bob Mould “See A Little Light”
Of course, as with the last couple albums from Hüsker’a Minneapolis cohorts, the Replacements, “See a Little Light” didn’t break any chart records. It was the classic situation of incredibly influential bands moving into a moody middle age, just as the bands they inspired start to get big. By 1991, what Hüsker Dü and the Replacements did on their earliest records was media re-dressed into “alternative rock.”
But there’s proof on Workbook that we were still less than two years removed from Husker’s last tour. “Dreaming I Am” starts very quiet too, but soon the pace picks up and Mould is hitting some high registers, proving that he was definitely not weeping over melting ice cream somewhere during that interim. The expansive “Brasilia Crossed with Trenton” recalls the piano dirges of Candy Apple Grey. Overall, Mould’s distinctive voice remains a link to his past – full-bodied, emotional, and it would appear he might’ve taken some voice lessons to learn how to tame that beast and have it survive a few more years. “Heartbreak a Stranger” and “Sinners and Their Repentances” contain some of the most ambitious and lovely singing Mould has ever done. “Poison Years” proves he hadn’t left previous emotional entanglements behind, but by the last track, “Compositions for the Young and Old,” he had the shifty beats and radiant acoustic-aided template for his next louder band all ready to go.
AUDIO: “Sinners and Their Repentances”
As it turned out, Workbook was all the calming down Mould needed. I saw him on that first solo tour, and he was already working a new slight paunch, which suits his hefty riffs and vocal power. And by 1991, he’d formed another loud trio, Sugar. Unlike so many of his trail-blazing punk pears, Mould was actually able to glean some of the attention of the “alternative rock” era, and it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy. (Though Mould never had that huge Top 10 hit. As my friend Matt once noted, Green Day’s “Good Riddance” is the sappy acoustic ballad mega-hit Bob Mould should’ve had.)
VIDEO: Sugar “If I Can’t Change Your Mind”
Taking a wide view, Bob Mould increasingly appears as a head on American punk’s Mount Rushmore (though allow this sculptor to have, like, six heads. There are obviously more loveable punks than Presidents.). To think of the singular way Hüsker Dü saved hardcore from its dead-end alley, then somehow Mould retained the energy to create a whole other band that didn’t just ride along with the alt-rock trend, but helped define it too, is startling. But he didn’t stop there. He became a subtle spokesman for the gay rights movement, and then part of a popular club DJ duo that has been active in the DC and NYC area since the mid-2000s. Oh, and since Sugar disbanded in 1995, Mould has since released 12 (!!) more solo albums of consistent quality.
But those are from a different place, a place where Mould had a bit more of the confidence of a seasoned pro. Workbook was a singular respite. It may be his most naked representation of the characteristic “Midwestern” mood that his mid-80s Minneapolis peers (Replacements, Soul Asylum, Magnolias) so effortlessly evoked underneath all the speedy beats, ragged guitars and throat ripping – that sullen, reflective spirit born of six-month winters and cheap beer-fueled basement band practices. That shed on the back cover of Workbook? It’s really only one floor up from the basement.