BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Full disclosure: I have a personal relationship with this record. Not in the sense that I had anything to do with its creation – I certainly do not. Nor that it came along as a difficult or trying time in my life and helped me get through it – outside of having to constantly take my ‘69 Volkswagen Beetle to the shop, I was feeling pretty good about life in 1989.
It’s only that for some indefinable reason I’ve never quite been able to figure out, Workbook, Bob Mould’s debut solo album he cut after spending nearly a decade in Hüsker Dü, hit me where I lived, and has been a perennial favorite ever since.
Keep in mind when I say this that this is the first Mould music I ever heard. That’s right – I’d read about but never actually heard Hüsker Dü when this LP came out. I read a review of Workbook in Rolling Stone that praised it to the skies and was curious about what a singer/songwriter record from the former leader of a punk rock band would sound like. Yep, I bought it on a whim after reading a review in Rolling Stone and it’s been in my all-time top 10 list ever since. How often do we thank the Old Grey Lady of rock journalism for a personal milestone like that?
Which brings us to Workbook 25, which is, as billed, the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of this landmark record. Begging the obvious question: how does it hold up after a quarter of a century?
The answer: pretty goddamned well.
In a sense, the album was a continuation of Mould’s work in the Dü. His lyrics had for years conveyed the idea of listening to deep thoughts and feelings. Whether or not it’s true (and no songwriter worth his or her salt ever confirms or denies for sure), Mould’s libretto always had the ring of personal truths, and that goes double for the songs here. Written and recorded in the aftermath of the breakup of one of rock’s most influential acts, the tracks struggle with the loss of a relationship, alternating between lamenting the causes of the breakup (“Poison Years,” “Lonely Afternoon”) and fortifying the soul for the task of moving on (“Whichever Way the Wind Blows,” “Heartbreak a Stranger”). It’s a situation to which anyone can relate, whether they’ve been in a band or not.
Though usually referred to as Mould’s acoustic record, the truth is more complex: a mix of acoustic and electric guitars, with forceful drums and a prominently used cello conjure up a set of rock sonics pretty distinctive at the time. While it was a departure from the Dü, it wasn’t so much of one as to be the equivalent of a bucket of cold water thrown on a copulating couple. There’s plenty of meltdown guitar (“Wishing Well,” “Whichever Way the Wind Blows”) and rock drive (“Lonely Afternoon,” “Poison Years”), not to mention that spectacular sense of pop melody that gave so much of his Hüskers material its buzz (“See a Little Light,” “Dreaming, I Am”). Besides, Mould had been dropping hints on Dü records for years about this creative move: cf. “No Reservations” on the final HD LP Warehouse: Songs and Stories, or “Hardly Getting Over It” and “Too Far Down” on Candy Apple Grey, or even “Celebrated Summer” on New Day Rising. Acoustic instruments went back as far as Zen Arcade, and “Hardly Getting Over It” is practically this album in microcosm.
The result of all this creative effort is a magnificent collection of finely crafted, emotional, musical tunes that hold up to hundreds, if not thousands, of listens. The textures that color “Brasilia Crossed With Trenton” and “Compositions For the Young and Old,” the moody atmosphere that floats “Sinners and Their Repentances” and “Heartbreak a Stranger,” the bright hope and cathartic fury that power “See a Little Light” and “Whichever Way the Wind Blows” respectively, the singular achievement of “Wishing Well,” perhaps the finest track of his career – all of it comes together to manifest a record that in many ways set the tone for Mould’s career thereafter, while also becoming the benchmark against which his solo work would be judged. Time has been kind to Workbook, and repeated listens over the decades reveal new wrinkles with every spin.
Workbook 25 adds the usual bonuses to expand the package, most of them from the forgotten compilation record Poison Years, but that’s not meant to be dismissive. The B-side “All These People Know” rocks like vintage Dü, and shows that Mould wasn’t ready to abandon industrial strength pop-punk just yet. The stupendous live set comprising disk 2 is a real treat. Recorded at the Cabaret Metro in 1989 with the Workbook rhythm section of Tony Maimone (Pere Ubu) and Anton Fier (Golden Palominos, Feelies), plus second guitar from Chris Stamey (dB’s, solo), it presents fired-up live versions of every song from the record, given tougher readings minus the cello, plus “All These People Know” and the unrecorded rocker “If You’re True.” Also included is a righteous burn through Richard & Linda Thompson’s “Shoot Out the Lights” and three set-closing Hüsker Dü songs, performed solo acoustic: “Hardly Getting Over It,” “Celebrated Summer” and “Makes No Sense At All,” setlist perennials to this day. (The Metro concert, originally broadcast via Chicago’s WXRT-FM, originally yielded the four live tracks that appeared on Mould’s promotional-only “Wishing Well” 12” EP. The full show was subsequently bootlegged repeatedly on CD.)
There remains a contingent of Mould fans who believe that any music he makes that strays from the Hüsker Dü template of loud, power trio rock-pop isn’t worth the plastic it was imprinted on. Don’t believe it – not to take away from his work in that style, but Workbook 25 is his masterpiece.
DOWNLOAD: “Wishing Well,” “See a Little Light,” “Heartbreak a Stranger”