I can’t really think of many artists that I enjoy as much as Bob Mould. From his early days in Hüsker Dü to his most recent solo albums, the man has touched on many different genres within the college/punk/alternative/indie or whatever current buzzword we are using to describe this genre.
This is the first post in a 2-part introduction Bob’s music broken down into what I would consider the eras of his work. Hüsker Dü will obviously be first but afterwards we are going to skip over his first two solo records and get into my favorite of his releases, Sugar. Workbook and Black Sheets of Rain may have come first but they really do belong in his post-File Under Easy Listening phase which will be explained later.
Part 1: Hüsker Dü
Hüsker Dü is a really special band. Two talented singer/songwriters found each other and just gelled so well together but never really got along. I won’t go into the problems Bob had with drummer Grant Hart but it is well documented that they clashed regularly. I highly recommend Bob’s autobiography “See A Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody” which does not pull any punches regarding Grant or anyone else for that matter. The book also happens to be one of the few written by a musician that I have read where the author didn’t make any excuses for their poorer output.
Hüsker Dü opened a lot of doors for the music that I hold dearest. They were the first big indie band to sign with a major label (Warner Bros) and managed to do it without ceasing creative control of their music.
Hailing from Minneapolis, MN they were the first band from outside of California to release an album with SST Records. Bob and Grant may have been writing punk songs but at the core they were pop songs played fast and loud. They took the blueprint of The Ramones and The Buzzcocks while making those two groups sound like The Monkees in comparison. While there were soaring guitars, thumping bass-lines, cymbals that sound like an explosion in a sheet metal factory, there was still a melody that can be heard in every one of their songs.
I would recommend everyone skip right over their first album, Land Speed Record, which is actually a live album. It was recorded in 1981 at 7th Street Entry (the smaller room at First Avenue, the historic club featured prominently in Prince’s classic movie “Purple Rain”). The album is pretty poorly recorded and, in my opinion, the band hadn’t reached their stride yet.
Instead, I would suggest starting with the 1983 EP Metal Circus featuring two stand out tracks, the opener “Real World” and perhaps the best song Grant Hart ever wrote, “It’s Not Funny Anymore”.
From here it’s best to move right into what most critics would cite as their best, the double album Zen Arcade. Opening with “Something I Learned Today”, this is where they became The Hüskers that everyone who knows of admires. Skipping to “Never Talking To You Again”, this is probably the first instance I can think of where a punk played an acoustic guitar just works. Unlike when Green Day did it, this is just an amazing track. You can just hear the bitterness in Grant’s voice. “Dreams Reoccurring” is an experimental noise track with the music being played in reverse, you can practically hear Sonic Youth’s next several albums being plotted in this 95 seconds. In the song “What’s Going On” a piano is played just as one of Bob’s sonic guitar riffs would and “Pink Turns Blue” could have probably been a hit if it had a cleaner sound to it.
At this point I find it may be best to move on to the next album, New Day Rising. Recorded just a few months after Zen Arcade it boasts a familiar sound to its predecessor but still stands on its own. Opening with a blistering title track, it shows the listener what they are in store for over the next 40 minutes. The second track is one of their most recognized of the SST-era, “The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill” followed by one of their catchiest songs, “I Apologize”. “Celebrated Summer” is one of my favorite tracks in their catalog. It starts off in typical fashion but then it sounds as if Bob is trying to catch vocally with the music and features perhaps the best guitar breakdown he ever wrote then kicks right back in at full speed.
1985 was a pretty big turning point for the band. After the release of New Day Rising, they decided to sign to Warner Brothers but were still going to have their next album come out on SST. The story goes that supposedly after hearing Flip Your Wig, the Warner exec’s were not very pleased that they were missing out what I happen to think is their best album.
Opening with the title track features Bob and Grant trading off vocals throughout. It is a great way to introduce the listener to what will be a very special record. You may notice that so far I’ve spotlighted the first track from each album. This is something that Bob has always done a great job with and still does to this day.
Flip Your Wig also seems to have had a boost in budget and it is by far the best sounding album they released on SST. It is really the only album that happens to not sound like it was recorded using a tincan connected to a pocket tape recorder connected by a piece of string. “Makes No Sense At All” is still a staple of Bob’s live shows. This was actually the song that introduced me to Hüsker Dü many years ago and will always be one of my favorites for that reason. In between two other great Bob songs, “Hate Paper Doll” and “Divide and Conquer” sits a beautiful song written by Grant titled “Green Eyes”. The last song from this album that I suggest checking out is a very dark track titled “Games”, it has a very late night to feel in it which I love.
The final two albums by Hüsker Dü, (Candy Apple Grey and Warehouse: Songs and Stories), I find the weakest. I don’t think it has anything to do with the band now being on a major label. If anything the extra money used to record really improved their sound. I just think that the internal tension was too much and it wound up affecting the songwriting process. I find Bob’s songs to actually be the weaker link here but I don’t exactly love Grant’s work either.
From Candy Apple Grey, the song “Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely” is the standout song on the bands worst album. Warehouse: Songs And Stories is an improvement but I would stick with the album’s most well known song “Could You Be The One?” for the best Bob’s best contribution and for Grant’s I would go “I’ll Tell You Why Tomorrow”. The band broke up while on tour for this album and will probably never reunite at this point. They can’t even get on the same page to get their SST albums back making them one of the few acts from the 80’s heyday that hasn’t successfully sued the label.