To celebrate the recent release of our 33 1/3 on Bob Mould’s Workbook, we’re pleased to bring you the fourth installment of Bob Mould Week by authors Walter Biggins and Daniel Couch!
Four takes: “See A Little Light”
In retrospect, Workbook’s “See A Little Light” feels like the quintessential Bob Mould song. Since its introduction in 1989, the song has never really left his live set; it’s shown up in a TV commercial and a movie; and it’s so associated with him that his 2011 memoir shares the same title. When the song was released as the album’s first single, though, it was a major departure for him. Poppy, sprightly, and with Mould’s voice not buried under distorted guitar or pummeling drums for once, “See A Little Light” feels this close to a folk ditty. Here, we trace how Mould has changed his performance of the song over the course of nearly three decades.
— Walter Biggins and Daniel Couch
Original “See A Little Light” video
WB: Visually, the official video recreates the sepia tone and Joseph Cornell-inspired junk collages of the album cover. There’s a reserved stateliness to Bob’s performance. Considering that this is his first album as a solo artist, displaying his music without the intervention of others, it’s maybe a little weird that the video doesn’t really show his face clearly. He’s always in shadow or seen as a silhouette, as if he wants you to keep your distance even when he’s exposing himself.
DC: It’s funny you mention that you can’t really see much of Bob in this video. It’s true and, while probably a valid enough artistic choice, it makes it all the more ridiculous that the hair and wardrobe budgets were so lavish. In a Rolling Stone interview he remembered the making of it: “Such a beautiful song and such a cheesy and expensive video. No offense to the filmmakers, but my God. It was like, ‘Wardrobe, what’s that?’ ‘Hair stylist? What?’ ‘That’ll be $5,000!’” I’ve got to say, I’m with Bob on this one. Overly literal videos drive me crazy. Oh, look, the birds are flying away when he says, “If you want me to go.” Does that make Bob the owl from earlier in the video if he decides to stay?
Solo acoustic performance at the Montrose Room, Chicago, IL (10/23/2010)
WB: If you dig through YouTube, you can find a lot of solo acoustic performances of “See A Little Light,” and all of them do a decent job of approximating the Workbook album even without drums, bass, or cello. I think this is one of the most playful (and best-recorded) versions, with a self-deprecating joke at the outset, and several vocal swoops and improvisations while he’s strumming in perfect, choppy rhythm. Unlike in the official music video, he looks like he’s enjoying himself.
DC: One of my biggest regrets about our interview with Bob is that I didn’t ask him what he calls these vocal embellishments he adds when he plays without a full band. Here he is approximating the guitar and cello lines with his voice, but if you’ve seen Bob play a solo show even once you’ll notice he is constantly filling the musical space like this, sometimes just adding texture, sometimes (as he does here) singing fragments of the missing parts just enough to evoke them in the memories of all of us who know the album version by heart. He’s got to have a name for this technique. I hope I get another chance to ask.
Full band performance on The Late Show with David Letterman, New York, NY (3/6/2014)
WB: With Jason Narducy on bass, Jon Wurster on drums, and Helen Money on cello, this might be the closest to how audiences in 1990 may have heard “See A Little Light” in concert. This full-bodied version (I love Narducy’s backing vocals, and you can actually hear Money’s cello on the bridge!) aligns well with his Hüsker Dü and Sugar days.
DC: This version is celebratory. The key line for me is when he sings, “Look how much we’ve grown.” Time has changed that line to something he’s earned, and you can see the relish on his face after he sings it. Also, unlike the other two videos, it looks like he’s playing the Lake Placid Blue Strat he bought while writing Workbook. You’re probably right that this is as close to the 1990 version of the song as audiences might have heard (not accounting for the fact that Chris Stamey was playing Jane Scarpantoni’s cello lines on his guitar), but it’s hard not to feel like Bob grew into this song in the years since. I’ve never heard a better full-band take on “See A Little Light” than this one.
Solo electric performance during an event for KEXP 90.3FM, Seattle, WA (4/16/2016)
WB: Corrosive as hell, if a bit rhythmically sloppy, this one’s a rager. He vocalizes the album’s bridge (played originally on cello) while strumming out the frayed guitar riff, and otherwise relies on slurs and overwhelming distortion to get this one over. Based on this version, you’d never believe the original was damn near a soft-rock staple.
DC: Notice, too, how the changes he made to the final chorus—both the melody and the pause before “go”—are now entrenched parts of the song. You can hear them in the Chicago show from 2010 as well. The big musical difference is that this one is electric rather than acoustic and a tad slower. More importantly though is how he is using it. If you look at the set list for this show, he’s got this and some Sugar and Hüsker Dü songs at the beginning and end of a set of largely new material. Whereas with the Letterman performance, the song was the jewel of the Workbook tour, now it’s simply another familiar song he uses to build audience engagement before challenging them. The song has had its renaissance, and it’s still a classic, but you can tell his own enthusiasm has shifted. Nothing wrong with that when you put together a career like he has.