Friday, May 15, 2015

Hippies vs. Punks: Bob Mould's Workbook

I immersed myself in Workbook (1989) this week; rather, I should say that I immersed myself in Workbook 25, the reissue of Bob Mould's first solo album on its 25th anniversary. I don't know why. I think the idea was to select another record, like last week's My War, that I tried to like, made an effort to enjoy, but never really did.

I have a very clear memory about this album because my wife's lover, the fellow she dumped me for who she ended up marrying and having children with, a really nice guy, an English traveling salesman of pewter animal brooches who was on the lam from collection agencies due to a mountain of credit card debt, told me how much he liked it.

I guess I had made a cassette copy of Workbook for my wife. Where she was living with her Englishman, a railroad apartment in a building on the northwest corner of 106th Street and Columbus not too far from Morningside Park, she didn't have a turntable, only a boom box. I can't remember when I bought the album; it couldn't have been too much longer after it had been released in the spring of 1989, a time I was still living with my wife (something I have been exploring sporadically on this page with "The Colt 45 Chroncile" posts).

I recall that my copy of Workbook was a cut-out, a sign that the album had been remaindered, which argues for my purchasing it the following spring or early 1990, the last months I would spend in cohabitation with my wife. I liked Mould's delicate, classical guitar on "Sunspots," which opens the record, as well as the next track, the outstanding "Wishing Well." But then my attention flagged as the rest of the album unfolded, the material never quite hitting the mark. In the end, Christgau's brutally dismissive criticism of Workbook is close to how I felt at the time:
Mould-Maimone-Fier are some kind of supersession, but they're no band, and between the cello and the acoustic guitar and the moderato and the lyric sheet that ought to have a little typeface note like at the end of a Borzoi book, I find myself disliking their record intensely. Until the raving finale, it's so respectable, so cautious, as if honest thought were a suitable substitute for wisdom, sarcasm, a good joke, or a suicide run for the next intro. C+
I wouldn't go so far as to say that I intensely disliked the record. It was after all Bob Mould, the sainted lead of Hüsker Dü, his first solo effort, and therefore worthy of study and respect. It's just that I never put a lot of effort into it. I tried to figure it out here and there, now and again, but never successfully.

Now, listening to Workbook again, my first reaction was in line with the one I had 25 years ago and with Christgau's critique: Elevator music for a maturing "adult contemporary" Hardcore Punk audience. Insufferable. But after listening to Workbook 25 nonstop all week I can safely pronounce the album a great one and certainly one meriting reissue. "Wishing Well" is truly an A+ track, as is the final cut "Whichever Way the Wind Blows."

I am drawn back to the assessment of Workbook by my wife's lover. He called it a great record. Trapped there in a dark flat with bars on the windows, he liberated me; he took a troublesome responsibility off my hands. I would blow in periodically -- this would have been 1991 -- on my way to a night out on the town and they always seemed so penned in and sullen. That's the dark side to pairing up. You're caught in a trap together.

The key to approaching Workbook lies here. Imagine yourself visiting an ex-wife and her traveling salesman lover in their dark third-floor walk-up right before you embark on a night of carousing in the big city. You're free, and they're not.


I'll be out of town for a few days. Back on Tuesday.


  1. I should go back and listen to the whole album more. After my divorce I settled in for awhile with a widow who lived in Pacifica. When I retired I'd hike Montara Mountain every day, and "Sunspots" and "See A Little Light" were pretty incredible to hear on my iPod when I reached the top of the hill.

    1. It's worth checking out WORKBOOK 25, Bob. I didn't have the time, but I also wanted to address how the record, the uptempo tracks, serves as a bon voyage -- an homage -- to the open chord R.E.M. Peter Buck "Radio Free Europe"-esque college radio rock anthem as the 1980s draw to close and the Berlin Wall falls, to be followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 -- the apex of Grunge and the dividing line between the remnants of post-WWII social democracy and neoliberalism triumphant and unchallenged. Thanks, as always, for your comments.