Compositions for the Young & Old, Pt. 11 | Bob Mould, “Black Sheets of Rain” (1990)

Bob Mould follows up the folky beauty of Workbook with with one of his bleakest moments in this dour sophomore solo effort.

 

 

Mike: 1990’s Black Sheets of Rain: Bob’s bleakest album? Especially lyrically? I would say yes. But for me, it’s a great album. I know your opinion is vastly different on this one.
Jason: Bleak? With a name like “Black Sheets of Rain”? With songs titled “Hanging Tree” and “The Last Time”? Now where would you get that idea?
In all seriousness, though, yes, a very bleak album. Which is understandable given the upheaval in his personal life that he details in his autobiography, with half of the songs written when his relationship was falling apart and the other half written shortly after it ended.
Mike: Yes, he’s not naming names specifically, but you can easily tell that this is incredibly personal to him, that the songs are even more autobiographical than anything he’s done so far. You can hear his anguish in every song. Even on a song with a poppy upbeat tempo such as the fantastic “It’s Too Late,” you can just hear his pain.
As much as I love this album for its very dark nature and tone, it does have some flaws. Several of the songs feel a lot longer than they need to or should be, which drags them into that almost ponderous area that really long songs tend to fall into.
Jason: My beefs with the album are twofold. One, yes, the songs are almost uniformly too long. Even the songs I really like are longer than I need to be. On any other album, “Out of Your Life” would be under three minutes. Here, it clocks in at three and a half. “Stand Guard” is a great little chunk of grunge metal, but there’s no way it should be five and a half minutes long with how simplistic the riff, lyrics, and song structure are.
Two, the production and arrangements are way too samey. The title track sounds just like “One Good Reason” sounds just like “Stop Your Crying” sounds just like “Hear Me Calling,” with the exact same grungy, plodding guitar sound. Put them end to end and then multiply that by the fact that all of those songs are too damn long and, this record is a bit of a slog to get through.
Mike: This is definitely not the most accessible album he’s written. And yes, very good observation on the guitar. For the most part, it is in the same sludgy grunge tone and tempo throughout the album. I know that is to correspond with the dark themes of the lyrics, but it really does get to be too much by the end of the album. However, when he breaks out and extends a riff or hits a solo, he is on fire. Case in point, on the title track, when he launches into that all too brief solo, you get excited…but then it’s back to the chug-chug-chug tempo.
Mike: I wonder if a lot of the repetitiveness and unnecessary length would have been eliminated if Bob didn’t produce this himself? A fresh set of ears on it to help streamline it.
Jason: Yeah, I’ve often wondered what Bob working with an outside producer would sound like. Outside of Spot on the first few Hüsker records, he never really worked with one, did he? (Though he did co-produce Sugar’s Copper Blue with Lou Giordano, which sounded stellar.)
Mike: I think an outside critical ear would have done wonders here.
Mike: And no, outside of Spot, I can’t think of any other producers he worked with. I believe all of his albums have been self-produced.
Jason: One thing I don’t think BSoR gets as much credit for is it’s as much of a sea change from everything that came before it as Workbook was. He went on to explore the same sounds to much better effect later, but this is another album that really didn’t tie into the Hüsker Dü sound.
Mike: Yes, really are not able to dissect this and say this guy was in HD. It sounds nothing like those former days at all.
Lyrically, he’s almost poetic here with the way he turns a phrase. Another observation, even though these are songs about his personal strife and his love life, he keeps things just ambiguous enough that they can apply to anyone. He still hadn’t been outed yet and you would never know that he was a very hurt gay man. He certainly didn’t fit the image he sounded like as a musician and he certainly never fit the image people had of a homosexual man in 1990.
Jason: True. The lyrics here, downer as they are, are pretty great. I think the album’s dirge-like atmosphere tends to hide that fact, though. Even though it’s not my favorite album, I’ve certainly listened to BSoR plenty of times, but I wouldn’t say I “know the words” to more than “It’s Too Late” and “Out of Your Life.” The rest of the words just come through as snippets, unless you’re really listening for them.
Mike: Very much so, which is where I feel an outside producer would have been helpful. This is an incredibly personal album for Bob and when you are that close to something, it’s really hard to be effectively critical.
This is like the introverts ultimate breakup album. I dare say this was an emo album from before when anyone would ever know what the hell that was.
And whereas Workbook was acoustically driven, the 12-string is greatly subdued here, more used as an accent piece. “Hear Me Calling” is a good example of that. It helps add a nice texture to the song And Bob’s swirling solo on “Hear My Calling” is pretty spectacular, too.
Jason: The breakdown on “Hanging Tree” is another place the 12-string pops up to great effect. That’s also a song where the dark atmosphere works wonderfully, but the song works better by itself than it does as the fifth downer song on the album.
Mike: Ha ha, yeah, it tends to wear on you because it’s almost oppressively down, down, down. When he brightens the music up just a bit like on “Hear Me Calling,” “It’s Too Late” and “Out Of Your Life,” they are memorable and much more impactful.
Jason: Yeah, having the uber-pop “It’s Too Late” in there at track 3 helps.
Mike: I’m trying to place what the opening acoustic guitar part on “Hanging Tree” reminds me of, and dang it, I just can’t place it. But I agree the 12-string works great in little snippets on that song to break up the furiousness of his electric guitar and add a great layer to it. Oh, and Bob is channeling Neil Young a little on the guitar solo.
Jason: Don’t laugh, but you know what the mix of dry desert acoustic guitar and big rock chords on “Hanging Tree” reminds me of? Jon Bon Jovi’s “Blaze of Glory.” (Young Guns 2 4EVA!)
Mike: YES! I thought Bon Jovi then crushed that idea. And not being a hair metal fan at all, I couldn’t think of what BJ song I heard it from.
Jason: That line “Stained glass window never gonna carry my name” sounds like something from “Wanted Dead or Alive” too, doesn’t it?
Mike: The whole song has that rock western feel. The only thing missing was some whistling and some reverbed-to-the-max echoes from boots on a wooden floor.
Jason: I want to talk about the arrangements a bit, generally. After what a huge leap forward Bob made on Workbook in terms of layering instruments and vocals, subtle cello accents, and gradually building energy throughout songs, it’s disappointing that BSoR basically throws all of that out. It’s all pretty meat n’ potatoes stuff here.
Mike: Sure, sure. Outside of some touches of acoustic and some backing vocals, it really is pretty straightforward.
Jason: The one big improvement is in the drum sound. Bob mentions in his autobio that Anton Fier recommended the studio they used (the Power Station in New York) because he loved the drum sound they achieved there. There’s definitely a weight to the drums that wasn’t there on Workbook or the Hüsker stuff that helps amplify the album’s dark tone.
Mike: It was a nice change to feel a drumbeat and opposed to hearing what I think was one because of razor thin sound. It might be my copy, but in parts the bass and guitar are sluggish and blend together a little too much.
And this one suffers a bit from song placement. Some of the more up tempo songs could have been placed in as breaks instead of song after song of slower, depressed songs.
Jason: Yeah. And for the love of god, don’t put your eight-minute-long dirge as the first track. Kills the momentum before the album’s even started.
Mike: No doubt. I like most of the song but it is not the best choice to open with.
Overall, this just suffers from not having a critical ear to trim some of the fat to make this a much leaner and overall better album. There is some great stuff here, but also some stuff that has a lot of potential that is lost in a sea of repetition.
Jason: See, now you told me you loved this album, but you’ve spent as much time complaining about it as I have!
DOGS & PONIES
Jason: As you said before, BSoR is Bob’s bleakest album. And while he can do bleak with the best of them, the sameyness of a lot of the songs here draws me toward the songs that go outside of that territory.
“It’s Too Late” is a particular favorite. It hits that sweet spot where bleak lyrics meet pure power pop melodies, with great vocal harmonies and guitars that slice up to the forefront at all the right moments.
“It’s Too Late” was also responsible for one of the most frustrating moments in my Bob fandom. In 2000, MTV2 launched the millennium by playing every single video in their vaults in alphabetical order. So I did some research over at the indispensable thirdav.com, made a list of all of the videos Bob had ever done, and waited patiently for each one to come up so I could record it on VHS (which was the style at the time). One night I waited for hours through the “Is” songs and the “It” songs and the other “It’s” songs, and here it is, approaching something like 4 in the morning and I have to get up for work in two hours but it’ll all be worth it. And then, right when “It’s Too Late” should’ve cropped up…they skipped to “It’s Tricky” by Run D.M.C.
The scream of anguish I let loose shook the walls. I still haven’t fully forgiven Run D.M.C. for this.
Mike: Those bastards!
Some of the songs do kinda of wear on you after a while. There is so much potential here for something more with some editing. “It’s Too Late,” “Hear Me Calling,” and “Out Of Your Life” are easily my faves. And yes they are the most upbeat cuts on the album. Upbeat in terms of the music, the lyrics are not the sunniest. I do greatly enjoy “Hanging Tree” and “Stand Guard” as well.
As much as it seems that I’ve bagged on the album, I really do love it. It was one that I listened to a LOT during some rough times post Sugar. BSoR was much higher on my list of favorite Bob solo albums until his last two hit, which have forced it down the list a bit.
Jason: “Stand Guard” is definitely a favorite, too. It’s got that great “chug-a-chug-a-chug-a-chug-BWA-NA-NA-NA” guitar riff. It’s not anything particularly complicated, but it’s a solid straightforward rock song.
“Hanging Tree” is easily my favorite of the darker songs on the album. I joked earlier about the Bon Jovi-ness of the arrangement but dammit, I love Bon Jovi so that’s totally meant as a compliment.
“Hear Me Calling” never really did that much for me, sorry. I’ve relistened to BSoR probably six times since we started writing about it, specifically hoping to pay more attention because of your love for it, and every time it skates by petty much unnoticed.
Mike: The guitar on ”Hear Me Calling” is great, and it helps that it’s not a slow and dirgy song. The lyrics are hopeful yet sad at the same time. Things have ended and he doesn’t want that, but he’s remembers the good and is holding onto that.
This part gets me:
Oh, you’ll never know how much I adored you
Every time I look around and see how much I ignored you
But I don’t mind you keep taking up all my time
The song speaks to me as I’ve been in his shoes, felt exactly what he’s felt in this song. And then it’s followed by “Out of Your Life,” which is not so hopeful.
Jason: “Out of Your Life” is the other pop song I was alluding to earlier. Again, the bleak lyrics (“If you want me out of your life, well, all you’ve gotta do is tell me/ I ain’t got a life of my own, and the one I got with you could kill me”) with sunny pop music makes for a killer combo. I feel like this one is a direct precursor to Sugar’s “If I Could Change Your Mind.” The one thing that grates is toward the end of the song, when Bob starts to bray “me” in this off-putting, nails-on-a-chalkboard way. I still love the song anyway, but anyone who finds Bob’s voice an acquired taste probably wouldn’t appreciate that song much in particular.
Mike: You mean the “if you tell meh” parts?
Jason: Right, exactly. “If you tell MEH! Tell MEH!”
Mike: His annunciation on words is a little oddish at times. And on words that shouldn’t have mutiple ways of saying it
Jason: Eh, he’s far from alone among rock singers in that respect. Not to compare Bob to Creed, but one of my main annoyances with Scott Stapp (among many, SO many) is that he writes lyrics that rhyme and then sings them so they no longer rhyme. It’s just…guh.
Mike: [laughs] Did you just utter Creed in the same breath as Bob? Oh, lord help us…
Jason: As for Dogs, well, it feels harsh to say, but pretty much the rest of the record. I don’t hate BSoR—these aren’t uniformly bad songs or anything—I just don’t particularly enjoy listening to it. It’s just a downtempo mush that doesn’t leave much of an impression on me.
Mike: For Dogs for me: “The Last Night” I appreciate the lyrics, but man is it just hard to listen to at times. I think this one sounded better on paper. “Disappointed” is an odd one for me. Just something about that one that doesn’t work for me.
Jason: “Disappointed” has some weird stuff going on with the vocals, where they’re double-tracked but sung very flat, emotionally. That’s actually on the cusp of being a “Pony” for me, at least in the context of BSoR. It’s fast and punchy (pretty much the only song on the album that is) and it’s got that cool police siren guitar thing going on.
Mike: I think it’s the monotone nature of the vocals that just do nothing for me.
FINAL GRADES
Mike: Overall, this is a weakish B- for me.
Jason: Really?
Mike: I could even go with a C+. Lyrically it’s strong. The delivery is weak in parts but when he shines, he really shines.
Jason: After all your “Oh, man, I love BSoR, Jason, how can you hate it so much?” pregame trash talk, I was expecting at least a B+.
Mike:  I’m keeping with the Bob scale, knowing what would get an A+…which is the next album.
Jason: Sssshhh, no spoilers!
I’m going with a C-. This is one of the albums in this set that I listen to the least, and when I do, I usually stick to just a handful of the songs and skip the rest. Unless you love mope rock, I would recommend most casual fans just download “It’s Too Late,” “Stand Guard,” “Hanging Tree,” and “Out of Your Life” and leave it at that.
Mike: And now time for the next phase in Bob’s illustrious career.
Jason: Before we leave “the Virgin years” behind, a note: to capitalize on Bob’s newfound fame with Sugar, Virgin released a “greatest hits” album called Poison Years. It’s an odd bird, most notably because it’s a greatest hits culled from just two albums.
Mike: yeah, it’s weird having a “Greatest Hits” and only having 2 albums to your credit to pull from.
Jason: On the BSoR front, it has three of the four songs I recommended sticking with above, as well as three others. On the Workbook side, though, it only has “Wishing Well” and “See a Little Light,” plus some live cuts from the Wishing Well 12” single.
Diehard collectors should probably seek out Poison Years for the live cuts and extras: the live version of “Poison Years” in particular is even better than the album version, and it also includes live versions of the never-recorded-in-the-studio-but-pretty-damn-great “If You’re True” and a savage rendition of Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Shoot Out the Lights.” But casual fans won’t get the overview they’d expect from a best-of because of the heavy emphasis on BSoR and live cuts…you’d be better off just buying a copy of Workbook.

 

In our next thrilling episode, Bob hits the reset button once again and returns with a new band and the finest album of his career in Sugar’s debut, Copper Blue.

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