Bob Mould’s 1990 album Black Sheets Of Rain was quite a shock to my system when I first heard it. See, I was never dialed into Hüsker Dü in my teens, so my first exposure to Mould was through his gorgeous, extraordinary album Workbook in 1989. That album blew me away — it was so beautiful, so passionate, and so perfect for what I was going through in my life back then. So I was very eager for Black Sheets Of Rain — I bought it the day it came out, and couldn’t wait to hear it.
Then I heard it. Whoa. I emerged 55 minutes later, bludgeoned and dazed, not quite sure what had happened to me. People, this album is heavy. Layers and layers of buzzing guitar in an intense wall of noise, a sludgy bottom end, and drums like punches to the face. Over all this come Mould’s tortured vocals. A throaty singer even in his tenderest moments, here he was more often than not ragged and hoarse, screaming about sacrifice, betrayal, depression, disappointment.
The one exception is “The Last Night”, which recalls the acoustic sound of Workbook. Everywhere else that acoustic guitars dare to appear on Black Sheets Of Rain, they function as curtains to be swept aside by the electric assault, as in the opening bars of “Hanging Tree”. On “The Last Night”, Mould layers his voice to harmonize with himself, and while he employs that technique throughout the album, everywhere else he uses it to turn his voice into power chords. And where in “The Last Night” he is calmly resolute, most everywhere else he’s either despairing or really, really pissed.
Here’s the thing, though. While I’ll probably always love Workbook more, I find Black Sheets Of Rain an incredibly powerful album, and listening to it 25 years later, it now strikes me as pretty much the perfect album to kick off the 1990s. More than a year before the radio waves got completely Nirvana’d and Pearl Jammed, this album announced the alternative future. Everything about it is grungy, right down to the cover. It bails on the Hüsker Dü hyperactive punk thrash, changing it out for grim marches through forests turning black. It’s got these enormous riffs, surrounding Mould’s voice like canyons, and his words ring through them. Those words are just as angsty as anything Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder ever thought of:
Slag heap keeps growing higher
Every morning the sky, it’s on fire
Is there an upside to every downside?
Keep it inside, it’s a downward slide of broken glass
Keeps building in piles
And I don’t know
I don’t know if the sun ever smiles
There’s another dimension to the record, too — hidden in the slag heaps are some amazing pop tunes. “It’s Too Late” even got a fair amount of play on modern rock stations, and with good reason, but there are even better rockers on here. “Out Of Your Life” wouldn’t sound out of place on a P!nk album, and “Hear Me Calling” is both moving and catchy as hell, especially the repeated “you win again” over the fadeout.
But the best track of all is “Stop Your Crying”, an absolutely killer composition delivered with shocking power. The lyrics are excellent, the chorus towering, and Mould’s vocal delivery is revelatory, or perhaps apocalyptic. The verses are fierce but controlled — it’s between them that the action really intensifies. As guitars swoop and swirl in massive phalanxes, Mould groans, screams, bellows his fury and frustration. He’s like a wounded animal in the ending vamp, shouting incoherently over lunatic soloing, before the riff triumphantly returns to close out the track. Everybody should have been rocking out to this song in 1990 — what a pity they weren’t quite ready.