Compositions for the Young & Old, Pt. 10 | Bob Mould, “Workbook” (1989)

Mould leaves behind both punk and pop on his pastoral debut solo album.

 

 

 

Mike: Following the breakup of Hüsker Dü, Bob Mould entered into a new chapter of his life. Having holed up in his rural home in Minnesota, he started working on songs mostly just to pass the time and to help cope with the stresses of his failing relationship with his then partner. What came from that effort is 1989’s Workbook, his first solo album. The album went on to receive very strong critical praise and further act as a huge influence on alternative music for the coming years. The album is known for its strong acoustic guitar core, introspective folk lyrics, and a wide array of song styles. Bob has gone on record as saying that he felt a lot of HD’s core fan base would feel betrayed by what they heard. As he did with Hüsker Dü’s shift away from punk, Bob kept on course, making the music he wanted you to hear. The anger, the passion, the intensity from his days in Hüsker Dü are all still there on Workbook.
I dove into Bob’s solo work, or at least what there was of it, shortly after Sugar hit in 1992. Again I saw interviews with him from around that time and loved Copper Blue and had to find out more. It would have been around ‘95 that I got Workbook and its follow-up, 1990’s Black Sheets of Rain. It took me longer to grasp Workbook (outside of the classic track “See A Little Light”). Knowing that a lot of what Bob is singing is what was going on in his life, it all makes just perfect sense.
What about yourself?
Jason: I came to Workbook fairly early in my Mould fandom. As I said back in part 1, first came Copper Blue and the very Copper Blue-esque Last Dog and Pony Show. I’m pretty sure from there I got Sugar’s other releases, then Workbook. So Workbook was my first exposure to Bob’s work outside of the alternative-pop vein. Needless to say, it took me by surprise.
Workbook, of course, has quite a reputation. When music writers write about Bob, the albums they talk about with hushed tones are Zen Arcade, Copper Blue, and Workbook. I think it serves as an entry point into Bob’s world for a lot of listeners, and it serves that role admirably, even if it is pretty much one of a kind compared to the rest of his discography.
Despite how different it was from what I heard, Workbook didn’t necessarily take a long time to grasp. Certainly some songs took longer to grow on me than others, and it and Zen Arcade are probably the two albums of his that my opinion has changed the most on over time.
Mike: I would agree that it’s a good entry point. I would have gone either here or his self-titled release, post-Sugar.
Jason: When you come around to Mould’s discography by working backwards through it as you and I did originally, it’s easy to forget what a crazy about face Workbook was at the time of its release. But listening to his discography all in a row, just trying to imagine it in the timeline that it was released, it doesn’t even sound possible.
With the Hüskers, Bob released an album in 1982, an album and an EP in 1983, a double LP in 1984, two LPs in 1985, one LP in 1986, and another double LP in 1987. Then, in 1988, nothing. And then in 1989, he releases Workbook, which is basically a complete about face from anything else he’d ever done. It’s mind-blowing.
Mike: A huge about face, and I would say a huge stiff middle finger to those punk fans who were so set in their ways that they refused to listen to anything else and grow musically.
The strength of songs and the way he builds on the first five songs is so great here. You start with this little lush, almost celtic guitar interlude on “Sunspots,” then right into “Wishing Well,” which grows and grows and grows until he just explodes
Jason: Even taking into account that he had done acoustic guitars on “Too Far Down” and “Hardly Getting Over It,” the songs on Workbook are light years different. Those songs still play like punk songs. You could imagine them thrashed out on an electric guitar. And then Workbook comes along and opens with two minutes of gorgeous, gently plucked classical guitar. Just imagine being a punker in 1989 throwing this album on for the first time. The guy responsible for so much angry, snarling rawk is making music that’s downright pretty. And then you flip the record over, and the dude on the back looks like he could be your 40-year-old uncle.
I think “Wishing Well” is Bob hedging his bet a little bit. It’s no surprise that the first single, and first “proper” song on the album, is one of only two with a full-on freakout guitar solo.
Mike: Yeah, his limited acoustic work in HD feels and sounds completely different than anything he did later.
The album closer “Whichever Way the Wind Blows” is probably him hedging that bet just a smidge, as well. Just as a reminder that, yeah, he still is going to blow your ears out and rock you hard.
Jason: “Whichever” is another one that took a long time to grow on me, mostly due to Bob’s screamed, mostly unintelligible vocals. Not that I had heard Land Speed Record yet at that point, but I had a similar reaction to that song as I did to the LSR material, even if instead of lightning fast hardcore you’ve got slow Jimmy Page-style heavy metal blues guitar.
Mike: In relation to the rest of the album, it’s harsh. It’s one song I regularly included in my running playlists.
Lyrically, songs like “Sinners and Their Repentances” and “Brasilia Crossed with Trenton” are incredible, but musically, however, they circle in on themselves and don’t really go anywhere.
Jason: I actually prefer the music of “Sinners” to the lyrics by a pretty wide margin. Songs that rhyme a word with itself over and over again are one of my biggest pet peeves, and about a third of the lines in this song end with the word “well.” It drives me batty.
Mike: When he changes things up within the song, it makes for a much more enjoyable listen. “Dreaming, I Am” is not the most well known of tracks, but it’s a fascinating one to listen to and hear the various things he’s trying. Parts of it have a very definite ‘80s feel to them, like the solo-ish part in the middle and the general tone, but I would rather listen to this then an endless loop of the same chords over and over with zero variety in the delivery.
Jason: I wonder how much of that ‘80s feel was pulled out by Bob’s collaborators this time out, bassist Tony Maimone (of Pere Ubu) and drummer Anton Fier (of the Golden Palominos).
As I was listening to Workbook in the car this morning, I was struggling to place exactly who “Dreaming, I Am” reminds me of. It has a definite post-new wave feel to it. It’s almost like a synth-less Fixx song.
Mike: The little jangly guitar solo thing is totally the Cure.
Jason: Oh, yeah, totally.
What do you think of Maimone and Fier? I’d say they make for good collaborators for a “solo” album: they’re technically proficient and support the songs well, but they don’t really inject much of their own personalities, leaving it very much Bob’s showcase.
Mike: I have no complaints with their work here. You are right, they are there as support to Bob as it’s his album. I don’t think anyone had any inclination that there would be further solo albums so they let him do his thing. Both are able to weave around Bob and compliment what he’s trying to do vocally or with his guitar and not drown him out. They also sound good here because the recording doesn’t sound flat and tinny like the Hüsker records.
Oh and it should be noted for guitar geeks, this is the first album that Bob’s trademark Blue American Standard Fender Strat and Yamaha APX-12 come in. The reason I mention this, is well, Bob is know for his blue Strat. I’ve played on similar models and it is a bit different to play on. It’s stiffer and more unforgiving. I suspect Bob changed some things up when he ditched the Flying Vs he was using. That will partially explain his change in tone and style from the Hüsker Dü days to solo and his work with Sugar. And his Yamaha just has that massively full acoustic sound that he’s known for. See “Sunspots” and “See a Little Light.”
Jason: I love that sunny, jangly sound he gets from his acoustic guitar. It’s what lifts “See a Little Light” up into the stratosphere.
Mike: It really does. I’m not a huge fan of playing Ovations and other acoustic guitars that have the resin/plastic backs, but damn do they sound fantastically warm. “Sunny” really is a good way of describing them.
Jason: Bob is in an interesting place lyrically on Workbook. For having come out of such a horrible band breakup, it’s surprising that that bitterness doesn’t really seep into the lyrics, other than on “Poison Years.” A lot of the lyrics are introspective, navel-gazing stuff. “Brasilia Crossed with Trenton” and “Dreaming, I Am” are about dreaming. “Lonely Afternoon” is about just sitting around the house. “Compositions for the Young & Old” is “I found this old book and it made me feel like a crotchety old man remembering the good ol’ days, even though I’m all of 29 years old.” “Heartbreak a Stranger” and “See a Little Light” are downhearted love songs.
Mike: Most of his lyrics are introspective and observational. He was living on a farm in rural Minnesota and in a bad relationship that was crumbling. Being semi isolated and alone forced his lyrics inward.
You haven’t gotten to this part in his book yet have you?
Jason: I have not, no, but I knew that much.
Mike: “See A Little Light” can also be a breakup song. But it’s so damn joyous sounding that it’s easy to get past the sad nature of the lyrics.
Jason: “See a Little Light” and Sugar’s “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” are wonderful fraternal twins: two of the most effervescent songs about getting kicked to the curb that I’ve ever heard.
Mike: Also, Bob goes through many bouts of weight loss and gain through his career, depending on what was going in. This is one of those times he dropped a lot, and from pictures and interviews from that time, he just didn’t look good. I don’t think isolation like that does him good.
Jason: I love the use of Jane Scarpantoni’s cello as an accent throughout the album. It’s used sparingly, but everywhere it’s used it adds to the ambiance of the album.
Mike: It adds a very nice and refined touch in the places it’s used.
Jason: (And of course, Bob would go on to produce an album by the band Verbow, which featured a cello player as a primary member of the band, and then steal that band’s singer/guitarist—Jason Narducy—to be his current bass player.)
The cello highlights the maturity of the album, really.
That’s the best word I can think of for the album: mature. From the introspective lyrics to the considered arrangements, Workbook sounds like the work of a singer/songwriter in his ‘40s (and I mean that as a compliment). And yet it was made by a punk rocker in his late 20s who just 4 years earlier was making some of the most raucous music ever recorded. Unreal.
DOGS & PONIES
Mike: So your faves on the album? Besides “See A Little Light,” which should be everyone’s favorite.
Jason: “See a Little Light” is among my favorite songs Mould has ever recorded. It never ceases to bring a big smile to my face.
“Heartbreak a Stranger” is one I really enjoy now. It’s one I went back and forth on for a long time; it was one of the first songs I really enjoyed on the album, but after a while, Bob’s vocal acrobatics started to bother me. I enjoy it a lot now, though.
And I’m a big fan of most of the album’s back half. “Compositions for the Young & Old” speaks to me more and more as a I grow older, and I love the jangly acoustic guitar and the understated organ.
Mike: “See A Little Light”, “Wishing Well”, “Compositions for the Young & Old,” and “Heartbreak a Stranger” are my 4 faves on the album. “Whichever” is great especially as a reminder of what Bob can do still from a harder rock perspective. AndI really do enjoy the heck out of “Lovely Afternoon.”And that solo…
Jason: “Lonely Afternoon” is a great song, too, and kind of unusual sounding among the other tracks on the album. It still has that jangly acoustic guitar, but Maimone’s bass is pushed much further up in the mix to where it’s really the driving force of the song. Bob starts off singing the song in a lower register, then adds in a higher harmony on the second verse that eventually explodes in a wicked cool guitar solo. Then all the instruments drop out for the line “They’ve held me down for long enough/ Like a flower, I need to grow.” Only Bob could make that line sound that badass.
That song is all gradual build. There’s all kinds of little tricks in the arrangement to just stack element after element on top of each other until the song boils over with energy.
Mike: It is a great bouncy bassline. AndI am a sucker for song that just builds and builds and explodes in a crescendo like this one does with that solo, and it really doesn’t relent any at the end, either.
Jason: At the end of the day, it’s not necessarily one of Bob’s best written songs, but it’s arrangement is pretty killer.
And then “Dreaming, I Am” and its hard to pinpoint new waviness are a big favorite of mine, too.
Mike: Dogs on Workbook for me would be "Sinners and Their Repentances" and "Brasilia Crossed with Trenton", the repetitive nature of both songs brings them down for me. They both just seem to go nowhere.
If my memory serves me correctly, you’ve mentioned to me before that “Brasilia Crossed with Trenton” is not your fave, particularly the way he utters “Trenton”?
Jason: Oh, man, when I first got Workbook, I looooooathed “Brasilia Crossed with Trenton.” Just absolutely despised it. That looping acoustic guitar strum pattern that’s just rising and falling, lathering, rinsing, and repeating over and over for nearly 7 minutes was just monotonous to me.
The lyrics also struck me as just navel gazing nonsense. I got what he was going for, the fantasy of the exotic invading the mundane everyday world, but the word “Trenton” is not the most poetic word in the world, and Bob’s delivery at the end of each not-quite-a-chorus of the line “Brasilia crossed with Tren-TAAAAAAWWWWN” was some real nails-on-a-chalkboard stuff for me.
What’s funny is the friend who turned me back onto Bob, who got me to buy LDAPS and continue on through his discography, absolutely adored “Brasilia.” It was one of his favorite songs. And we’d get in these spirited chats on messageboards or AOL Instant Messenger or whatever and I’d torture him by typing “TRENTAAAAAAWWWWN.” It drove him crazy because he loved that song and I just couldn’t help but make fun of it.
Mike: it is waaaaaay to long for such a repetitive song. And I really wanted you to write out Tren-TAAAAAAWWWWWN. The song does have a great sentiment, but it’s just not the most dynamic one in his catalog.
Jason: True. I’ve come around on it and appreciate it for what it is. But if I’m in the mood for this kind of song, I’d rather listen to Sugar’s “Panama City Motel,” y’know?
Mike: Exactly. If it was distilled down to about four or five minutes, it would be better.
Jason: My other Work Dog would be “Whichever Way the Wind Blows.” It’s not the best of his big hard rockers, and it sticks out like a sore thumb when a song that raises such a racket is tacked on after so many quiet, introspective songs.
FINAL GRADES
Mike: Now that we are in Bob’s post-HD period, grading is a little easier as we are comparing apples to apples (instead of apples to pears?). For me, this gets a strong B+. Fantastic start to his solo career. I really wonder if the thought was this was going to be just a one-off solo album and not the start of something more.
Jason: B+ works for me, too. It’s as revolutionary in its own quiet way as Hüsker Dü’s finest records, but the handful of songs that don’t quite connect drops it a half-step below New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig when grading on the Bob Mould curve.

 

Tune in next time for one of Bob Mould’s bleakest moments, his dour sophomore solo effort Black Sheets of Rain.

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