Monday, July 29, 2013

Heaviest Album I've Ever Heard - Bob Mould - Workbook


                                               In an act like Jesus Christ
                                                    stare into the sun
                                               You don't see eye to eye with

Alienation.  Betrayal.  Catharsis.

When the idea of a theme week was first broached with the topic being "The Heaviest Album You've Ever Heard," Bob Mould's stark portrait of soul searching, anger and desolation drove into my brain like a spike slicing into my grey matter.  Or more appropriately, a dagger speared into my heart.

For some, this may seem like a strange choice for heaviest album.  First of all, Bob Mould is no stranger to heavy.  As a former member of seminal Minneapolis hardcore band, Husker Du, Mould and his mates redefined heavy for an entire generation of American punkers.  Any Husker Du album would seem to be a heavier choice than "Workbook."   But that's not the way I hear it.

Nor did I want to choose "Black Sheets of Rain" an album so heavy with guitar distortion and feedback that it's nearly impenetrable.  That's not the direction I wanted to go.  That's not an album that resonates with me emotionally.

To me, heavy isn't just volume or noise or cacophony of descending walls of aural chaos.  Heavy is mood.  Intent.  An introspective journey.  Emotions strewn and dispersed upon an intense wasteland of frayed nerve endings.  Anger so intent that it drips from raw-gutted pores.  A soul stripped of every last vestige of protection, laid bare and open, as if to be scavenged by ravens and crows.  Self-hatred, loneliness and isolation flowing within the blood dripping from the yawning wounds of a ravaged heart.

That's what I hear in "Workbook."

After several acrimonious years in Husker Du, the band finally split in a nuclear burst of condemnation and venom amid members' drug abuse, personal problems, disputes over songwriting credits, musical direction, and the suicide of the band's manager, David Savoy. The rift between Mould and Grant Hart, the band's other songwriter and vocalist, was so severe that the two still take jabs at each other in the press.  After the dissolution of Hüsker Dü, Mould sequestered himself in a remote farmhouse in Pine City, Minnesota,  He'd been battling demons like drinking, drugs, and coming to terms with his own sexuality, but at that time he'd quit the drinking and the drugs.  Armed with a guitar, he hid away, cut open a self-reflective vein and let it all pour out.

And it's in that light that this album must be understood.  One man.  Guitar.  Alone.  Withdrawn in an isolated cabin.  Time to cut open the wounds and let them bleed.

A shade of light opens the album with the beautiful acoustic sketch, "Sunspots. " Delicate runs of guitar so subtle that they bring chills.  Then begins the catharsis.  "

                                           Wishing well runs wet and dry
                                            I wish for things I never had.                    
                                         Surrounds and wells up in my eyes,
                                              the screaming voice, it lies.

All good music plays against a contrast of shades, the light, the dark. The heavy and the pristine. This song is a perfect example.  Nearly pop-like in it's flavor, the acoustic guitar is paradoxically light-hearted as it strums the verse.  Listen closely, there's cellos.   But the light is only the barest of covers for the brooding darkness beneath.   Anger lies hidden in the explosion of guitar that decimates the calm half way through.  Notes shred and boil with intensity and passion as it all builds to a massive crescendo.  Most telling of all though is Mould's voice.  Anguish laces his vocal chords.  Words come out in spits of poison.  Lyrics rush by in huffs of fury.

Where is he in this song?   I have no frame of reference, but given where he was in his life my guess is a longing for peace, particularly with his sexuality.  "There's a price to pay for a wish to come true.  Trade a small piece of your life," seems to speak of the backlash he expects if he were to fully embrace his identity as a gay man. That struggle, and any other struggle he may have been engaging are clear.  The pain is palpable. 

"Heartbreak a Stranger," features one of Mould's best vocal performances on the album, his voice creating a dance of mood and nuance.  Despite the composition being entirely acoustic, the oppression never lifts.  I hear this and am flooded with an overbearing weight of loneliness.  At the darkest moments of my life, I've felt the stark alienation that fuels the song.  When nerves are so wounded and raw that words even from a stranger can cut deeply, throwing open that chasm of self-loathing.

"See a Little Light," as the title suggests, is a reflection of hope.  A searching across the horizon of a dying relationship for the beacon that represents a new day.  Whether this song speaks to a former lover or the break up of his old band isn't clear, but it takes me both places.

And then there's "Poison Years", the centerpiece of emotional darkness.  The sound of that lonely man, locked in his isolated cabin, releasing a lifetime's worth of demons.  What could only have been written about his former bandmate Grant Hart, Mould tears open his soul, admonishing the pain of those years with him.  The poison years.  We've all been there, one relationship or another, where we just needed to scream and spit into the face of the heavens to release the poison we've ingested.  Rip open our chests to release that soul-crushing vileness of a toxic relationship.  The screaming need to throw aside the numbness and self-doubt and feel something real again.  "Posion Years" is that screaming. That catharsis.  That unbridled need for freedom and the casting aside of mental/emotional shackles.

I almost physically crawl into Mould's voice in this song, drawn in by the bile and the anguish that drapes his vocal chords.  The song is all about Mould's voice.  Even the lyrics when seen aren't all that stunning.  They're simple and direct.  But it's that combination of the directed arrows of his words with the liberating cleansing of the emotional toxin that drives the song deep into my man-child midbrain. Back to the place where each moment of that pain is real and suppressed.

Mould's guitar work here is brilliant. From the deceptively simple  acoustic riff to the mid-song explosion of fury.  His notes sound like screams.  Feed back wails like dying souls.

And the album goes on from there.  A purging.  An emotional eradicator.

My heavy album of the week.


1 comment:

Rokkr said...

I was working on a radio station the year this came out and I loved it immediately and played the hell out of it for weeks. Great piece.

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