His work with Sugar – the power trio he formed in 1992, four years after Hüsker Dü’s demise – feel like an attempt to wash away the angst of the post-punk years, to try on a sunny expression and see how it felt. And while Sugar were themselves short-lived, their music, particularly that collected on excellent debut album Copper Blue, sounded like salvation.
Copper Blue hit it big, selling hundreds of thousands of copies and scoring NME’s 1992 Album of the Year. In part, this was down to timing. The alternative rock movement that Hüsker Dü helped usher in was booming, thanks to the stratospheric success of Nirvana’s Nevermind. But Copper Blue also contains some of Mould’s brightest, most brilliant writing.
Subject-wise, it is not exactly light: the Pixies-esque A Good Idea is the tale of a man who drowns his lover, and The Slim recounts the death of a friend from AIDS. But the arrangements froth with melodies, gold-plated choruses stretch out a mile, and an expanded instrumental palette – witness the synthesisers and harpsichords that adorn the lilting, 60s-tinged Hoover Dam – mean each song comes out gleaming with a rare lustre.
This generously expanded edition brings with it a wealth of extra material, including numerous B sides (including a fine solo mix of the breezy, acoustic If I Can’t Change Your Mind), a four-track BBC session and, on a second disc, a live set from the Cabaret Metro in Chicago.
Those that adore Copper Blue are also directed towards the following year’s Beaster EP, songs from the same sessions but of a darker hue. Similarly reissued in expanded form it presents proof that, even on sunnier days, Mould still had angst to burn.
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When “Copper Blue” was released at the very apex of the rave era, the nation was wringing its hands over all things to do with music “characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” and the music press was obsessing over the handbag-hardcore schism. Only a few people sat up and listened to the news that Mould was back.
There’s no doubting that Creation Records (and of course Rykodisc, Sugar’s US label) knew they had something remarkable in their hands. But when the roar, power and heartbreaking intricacy of Bob Mould’s wall-of-guitar had reached such exquisite fruition as on this magical album, word soon began to spread: Bob Mould was back, Back, BACK and had served the ace that everyone thought he might one day be capable of.
Creation was, of course, still “only” an indie label and did not have an enormous corporate promotion budget to throw at it. Coming hot on the heels of Mould’s solo career and having none of the youth, boyish looks or swaggering gobbiness of the other big-noise bands of the time, Sugar were still a risky proposition. And to add to that Sugar’s idea of “not playing the corporate game”, which did not mean growing their hair long, delivering emotionally incontinent rants about The Man or trying to out-do each other’s chemical consumption; neither did it mean looking glum and moody. It just meant standing around looking like ordinary guys and not really saying too much … so their PR people had a tough job.
And yet, if I remember rightly, this album stayed in the top 5 of the UK indie charts for maybe 18 months. Up against Primal Scream’s “Screamadelica” or Nirvana’s “Nevermind” that alone is a truly awesome feat. It only takes one listen to figure out why. Listening to it as I write, 11 years later and possibly for the 200th time, it still feels as if I’m hearing it for the first time. The rush, the bliss, the noise, the angst, the adrenaline and the unimaginably glorious melodies that defy the imagination are all there; but now I’m older, it’s the maturity, the class and the depth that keep pulling me back, even if I still don’t understand how Mould gets his guitar to sound like that.
Truly, there are barely a handful of records in my collection (of well-over 4,000 records) that have hooked themselves so deeply into my brain as this and I’m not even particularly a heavy-guitar, grunge or rock type. It’s tempting to go through this record, track-by-track, offering some kind of critical analysis of what I think makes it so dazzling, so brilliant, so iconic. It would be simple to spew-forth a eulogy on the lyrics, effuse about the chord progressions, swoon repeatedly over the guitar solos or quiver uncontrollably about the perfect segueing between the tracks but it’s more satisfying to consider the overall, overwhelming effect.
This is an album to be consumed whole and as with all great art, it is enormously greater than the sum of its parts. It’s just completely and utterly fabulous. I’ll still be listening to it in another decade and I hope you will be too.
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