There’s a really dumb novelty song called “I’m My Own Grandpa” that basically says due to various genealogical convolutions a man can somehow be his own grandpa. Bob Mould can probably relate.
Mould laid down the roots of modern indie rock in the ’80s with his band Hüsker Dü. The fiery dirty punk torch Hüsker Dü ignited was passed to Nirvana, among other newly anointed grunge bands that flamed bright in the early ’90s musical revolution. Nirvana then passed the torch right back to Mould who infused his new band, Sugar, with a grunge-inflected pop punk sound scarcely heard before 1992, the year that Copper Blue was initially unleashed on the public. The album is back in stores today, waiting to be discovered by a generation of music lovers raised on the offspring of Sugar’s glaringly brilliant power pop. Bands like Green Day, Gaslight Anthem and The Killers all owe a musical debt to Sugar and the melodic, catchy pop rock that they laid forth in the early ’90s. The reissue isn’t just for new fans, though. The deluxe CD packaging is filled with live performances and the Beaster EP, meaning that there really is something for everyone.
It could be easy to brush off the Sugar reissue as a relic of ’90s nostalgia, but that act would ignore the lasting impact of Bob Mould’s band on the musical landscape. From the first note of Copper Blue, the album was revelatory. “The Act We Act” kicks off the record with a sludgy guitar introduction that draws the listener in before opening up into something that was a rarity in early ’90s rock: a toe-tapping melody. The album’s mesmerizing combination of power pop interlaced with grinding guitar work, relentless bass and drum lines, and Mould’s charged lyrics were a welcome evolution of rock. The album as a whole was — and is — nearly perfect, which is why it managed to beat out R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People and PJ Harvey’s Dry to be named NME’s album of the year.
An album is comprised of individual tracks that create the album’s story. The songs on Copper Blue are incomparable for the era. When you think ’90s sound, you may not know it, but you are thinking Sugar. This isn’t to imply that the album sounds dated in any way. Rather it captures a musical moment so succinctly that pressing play is like an instantaneous trip through time without the bathetic highs and lows of a stroll down memory lane. As Mould says, “It’s one of those records that sounds like it’s 20 years old; it sounds like it’s 50 years old; it sounds like it was made last week.”
Mould claims he “got lucky” with the album, but that’s only accurate if “luck” comes from years spent slaving away in the trenches where musical trailblazers craft the sounds of tomorrow far from the spotlight. His band, Hüsker Dü, along with fellow Minneapolis rockers The Replacements, staged a quiet and frequently drunken, rock n’ roll revolution that helped set the seismic shifts in motion that would allow Nirvana to explode onto the scene a decade later. Hüsker Dü generated some of the best rock music ever, crafting intense emotional songs set to blistering melodies. They were songs that helped slowly move the musical conversation towards the grunge era. In an interview with The Quietus, Mould said, “Hüsker Dü was like a very, very fast jet plane that never really touched down and it didn’t have a lot of grounding to it and that was the beauty of that sound.” And like a jet, the live-fast band crashed hard in the late ’80s, burning out in a whirl of ambition, attitude and addiction. After drudging away for years on the outskirts of the mainstream, Hüsker Dü was signed to Warner Bros., but failed to crossover to popular success. The band imploded, and by 1991 Mould was without a label or management, but with the mystique of indie rock royalty and hard-earned cred intact.
He put out two darkly emotive yet exhaustingly atmospheric albums, Workbook (1989) and Black Sheets Of Rain (1990) and toured seemingly incessantly, playing with Dinosaur Jr. and hitting the festival circuit, dragging his 12-string guitar on stage between sets by Sonic Youth and the still relatively unknown act Nirvana. Then came 1991 when The Pixies were falling apart, the D.C. music scene was throwing out the politically charged punk of Fugazi and Nation of Ulysses, riot grrl rock was growing, and Nirvana’s Nevermind hit hard. The album went to number one on the Billboard charts, bringing emotionally raw grungy rock to the masses, whether the band wanted it to or not.
It was then that Mould decided he needed a band to fully flesh out the songs he had been writing. He reached out to bassist David Barbe and to drummer Malcolm Travis and the trio drifted into a studio in early 1992. They realized they had accidentally formed a band when they were offered a slot at a club after another act fell through. They chose a name and Sugar was born. In the studio, the new group laid down the ten tracks that made up Copper Blue along with a number of songs that would be released in 1993 as their Beaster EP. When their album hit shelves in the fall of 1992, it was an alternative radio hit that earned Mould and co. the much sought-after mainstream success.
While Sugar was relatively new to the musical scene, there is no doubt that Mould was a seasoned pro. Copper Blue is a resoundingly mature album built from the ground up on a solid framework of well thought out melodic structures. For Hüsker Dü fans, Copper Blue was in many ways the ultimate Hüsker Dü album. While Mould stepped into Hüsker drummer Grant Hart’s pop-punk song-crafting shoes, it was wildly effective, as if Mould had been taking notes all along. And in some ways Sugar was also antithetic to the rock-n-roll-never-dies attitude that infected Hüsker Dü. The group relies on contemplative song writing, forgoing Hüsker’s brashness for strategic poignant musical boldness. Hüsker Dü could never have written “Hoover Dam” with its ’60s- to ’80s-era hopping sound, let alone the haunting “The Slim,” a song that tackled the AIDS crisis with songwriting that lays a visceral punch, as Mould wails, “When you left with your death/ I felt empty when I looked back/ On my pillow/ What you used to say… I’m left behind.”
Each of the album’s ten songs is uniquely engaging, from the first strains of “The Act We Act” to the final bars of “Man on the Moon.” Mould and his bandmates David Barbe and Malcolm Travis have a knack for matching lyrics to music, the one informing the other. “Hoover Dam” starts with a Beach Boys-inspired carousel of tinkling notes before sweeping you over the edge and plunging you into the blaring guitars and drums at the heart of the song. Floating like mist over the top of the cataract is an ’80s-esque keyboard that saves the track from any hint of ponderousness. “Helpless” pairs Travis’s huge drums with Barbe’s descending bassline and Mould’s relentless wall-of-noise guitar riffs, which all add to the sense of helplessness and confusion at the root of the song.
“Changes” shows the band knee-deep in sonic experimentation, pairing an almost-sweet melody with a noisily cascading guitar track, the result being a composition that is nearly impossible not to bob along to. The emotion in the songs brings you to the brink of tears as Mould makes a relentless and heartfelt plea to make some changes. It’s a sentiment that everyone and anyone can relate to. It’s indicative of Mould’s ability to be almost entirely introspective while also tapping into a universal emotion. It also explains some of the album’s timelessness. The subjects are archetypal and unchanging: love, loss, identity and restlessness are all explored with an intensity of emotion in a hail of guitar-fueled glory. In short, it never gets old.
While blazing their own trail and crafting what is now considered the quintessential ’90s sound, there are clear echoes of other bands in Sugar’s lexicon. “A Good Idea” sounds like it could have been plucked off of The Pixies’ Doolittle. Hanging out with Dinosaur Jr. also made an indelible impression on Mould’s music with J. Mascis’ trademark fuzzed-out guitar making an appearance on several tracks, including “A Good Idea.” A meandering and lush guitar arrangement puts “Man on the Moon” squarely into My Bloody Valentine territory a year after the band’s peerless album Loveless came out. Mould himself said that when he heard Loveless, he was simply blown away. “I thought I had a great bunch of songs to go into the studio with but when I heard that record I was like, “Uh, oh! I’ve really got to step it up here!” he told The Quietus. The kick in the pants is evident in the rich orchestration and carefully overlayed arrangements that pervade Copper Blue. While Loveless is far from a pop punk album, it’s an effect that works well in the genre, offering a depth of sound that takes Sugar’s songs from ditties to powerful and memorable anthems.
Sugar followed their success with their EP, Beaster, which is included in the newly reissued deluxe edition of Copper Blue, as well as a full-length album File Under: Easy Listening in 1994. Beaster was culled from the same apocryphal crop of some 30 songs that Mould drafted before finalizing the track listing on Copper Blue. The EP is cut from the same cloth as it’s sire, and blasts out of the gate at a frenetic pace amping up the energy for each of the six songs. The effect is mesmerizing, but the requisite short length of the EP gives the songs no room to breathe and ends up feeling a touch claustrophobic. File Under: Easy Listening is Copper Blue‘s true heir. The songs on the album, which kicks off with a sizzling opener, “The Gift,” offer listeners a dizzying blend of fiery, powerful pop punk. Perhaps due to their mainstream alterna-rock success, or maybe because the band was a few years older and simply less angst-filled, File Under has less of an edge than Copper Blue, which makes it somewhat less satisfying. Mould has also written many astounding solo albums, filled with soul-searching anthems and speaker-shattering power pop songs, that are well worth exploring. But if you’re only going to add one album to your collection, it has to be Copper Blue.