One can imagine that when the punk crowd that followed Hüsker Dü first heard Bob Mould's solo debut in 1989, they may have thought how stripped down it was in comparison to what he did in his former band. They would be mistaken, however. He had been quieting down his sound progressively for years but it's not as if the arrangements were as sparse as that of “Too Far Down” from Hüsker's Candy Apple Grey. That was a strictly acoustic number, just Bob and his guitar. What Mould really did was let his guitar be his instrument rather than his weapon, a surgical tool over a blunt object. Without gloriously heavy feedback to cloud his compositions, he filled the space with layers of strings and harmonizing vocals. Workbook was the work of a man trimming the fat, losing a but of distortion along with a couple of difficult band members, and flourishing in new-found freedom, the freedom to explore.
Sometimes, Mould seemed to be throwing ideas at a wall. “Brasilia Crossed With Trenton”, on the surface, seems like utter nonsense. However, it almost could be the story of a modern day cowboy or a Spartan with no war to fight. Like on many of the songs, Mould sings his heart out on it. His guitar work throughout the album has a Meat Puppets feel to it with all the hammers and pull offs he executes (most notably on the excellent “Heartbreak a Stranger” and the instrumental, “Sunspots”). It would seem he received something valuable during his SST Records days, if not actual pay.
A song like “Dreaming, I Am” with its jangly picking and ethereal harmonies would be one of the earliest examples of dream pop, twenty years before the genre became such a huge staple in indie rock. It would be remiss to avoid the majority favorite of the album, “See a Little Light”. The song still marks the poppiest entry in Mould's discography. Not only is it infinitely pleasing to the ear, it's a legitimate feel good moment. Perhaps this is the opposite intention based on the lyrics (in which there is the least amount of words out of any of the album's tracks) but it elicits such a warm glow that burns as bright as ever.
As good as Workbook is, this anniversary edition actually raises the bar with all of what is added on. It takes a four-star album and makes it an absolute essential collection. Perhaps looking to make a clean break from his previous band, the very Dü-like “All Those People Know” was left off Workbook and relegated to B-side status. Though the synth track probably wouldn't have been part of one of that band's record, the basic structure and sound of the song certainly bare similarity.
Also included is the live show from Chicago's then-Cabaret Metro, where Mould plays every track from Workbook as well as which “All Those People Know”. Available commercially only in this live form (and another up-tempo track that could have been a Hüsker Dü song), “If It's True”, actually takes potshots at the other two members of the trio. The concert is closed by a triplet of three of Mould's very best from Hüsker Dü in “Hardly Getting Over It”, “Celebrated Summer”, and “Makes No Sense At All”. The Metro crowd goes into audible shocked ecstasy mere syllables into “Hardly”. They provide the title refrain for Mould during “Makes No Sense At All”, for which he thanks them with a hint of joyed surprise in his voice.
It's interesting that Mould chooses to fully strip down the punk tracks while breathing a harder edge to some of the Workbook tracks. The tempo on the old songs isn't slowed a bit, however. That old ethos of playing fast and hard not lessened at all by the change of material. A quarter century passed since the original release of the album but the old girl is better than ever, like a rock & roll Betty White.
This reissue is out now via Omnivore Recordings.