Twenty years after its initial release, the debut Sugar album remains one of my favorite albums of the 1990s as well as one of my favorite rock albums of all time. After establishing himself as an accomplished singer/songwriter with two solo albums following the breakup of seminal Hüsker Dü, Bob Mould launched Sugar, now brought back to life through an exceptionally amazing package by Edsel out now in the UK (and an okay version due from Merge later this month).
1992 was an exciting year for music: in 1991 hair band domination was put to an end thanks to grunge and techno, resulting in the explosion of independent labels worldwide. The Salem Massachusetts based Rykodisc was hardly known for breaking new rock bands, but had plenty of open distribution avenues thanks to the Bowie and Zappa catalog reissues. On the other side of the pond Creation were shoegazing experts, but not recognized so much for American post-punk. Somehow Sugar worked for everyone all around as Bob Mould spent the previous years working with major labels Warner Bros. and Virgin Records, both which had no clue what to do with him. By the end of the year NME voted Copper Blue as album of the year, and while it may not or may not have been my favorite of the year, depending on what day I'm asked, it was at least in the top five (probably along with Meantime, Doppelganger, Souvlaki, and Peng!).
Hüsker Dü was becoming more popular as a legend than they actually were during their existence (stadium rock mega-groups like Nirvana and Pixies frequently cited them as main influences) and Mould had won the critics over on his own, most particularly with 1989's introspective debut solo album Workbook. I got to see Hüsker Dü at 14 during their final tour at the Student Union Ballroom at UMASS Amherst. Three years later I couldn't get in to a Bob Mould solo show at Bill's Bar in Boston (I hadn't turned 18 yet), but these weren't huge places, Mould hadn't made a breakthrough connection with the mainstream until Sugar.
In all actually, this was a new approach. The songs were fresh, catchy, and the hooks were epic. Additionally, there were sounds never heard on Mould's prior projects: synths, various samples, and odd non-musical noises in transitions between songs. Most importantly, the "band" aspect played a much greater role than most people probably give it credit for: with other people mixing the album with Bob and playing in the band, other characteristics were new, especially the vocals. No longer were Mould's vocals buried deep beneath the distortion of his thunderous guitars, for Copper Blue the vocals were clear and exceptionally present. No fans were lost, as far as I remember. No energy was gone from the Hüsker Dü days nor were the lyrics any more uplifting than Mould's solo albums, despite Bob's claims he had excised his demons on the solo records.
Singles with undeniable hooks like "Helpless" and "Changes" were lyrically dark, despite the springy pop melodies. Additionally, it sometimes sounded as if Copper Blue was a tribute to the bands that Mould helped make, with Mould either consciously or unconsciously cashing in on the bands that Hüsker Dü influenced. "A Good Idea," in particular, could have easily been a Pixies tune, and, now with Pixies out of the picture, who was going to stop Mould?
Copper Blue was the right album at the right time that hit all the right spots. It opens with the brooding "The Act We Act," which sounds like a heavy and gruesome way to open a pop record, but lyrically it's not nearly as sad as the rest of the album's themes of murder, disease, and destructive heartache, especially the words in the spritely sounding perfect pop (breakup) tune, "If I Can't Change Your Mind." I was working at Tower Records at the time and Bob's sexuality was at least widely known amongst the fans, but I still don't buy that all of the songs are about his alleged breakup with Grant Hart.
I parted with my copy of the original version in the limited copper package with the Polaroid to spring for this version and I do not regret that decision. The remastered sound is fantastic, surprisingly making the album sound meatier than it previously was. Edsel has reintroduced the album in the UK, remastered as a 2CD+DVD package. Disc 1 contains the album and B sides, disc 2 was recorded live at the Metro, Chicago in 1992 and the DVD includes the promo videos as well as some TV performances and interviews. I think it's better to hear the B-sides in the context of the year instead of collected on the previously released Besides compilation. For those in the US, fear not, the DVD is playable in our machines. The accompanying booklet contains a scrapbook of photos and tour posters and tons of dialogue from all the band members, Alan McGhee of Creation, and Lou Giordano, the album's engineer.
I almost held out for the Merge version but was put off when I learned that the Merge versions would not include the DVDs. Furthermore, the Merge version of Copper Blue tosses in the Beaster EP, which sounds completely out of place when listening in the context of Copper Blue, despite being composed and recorded during the Copper Blue sessions. While I enjoy Beaster on its own merits, it is simply too dark to be played as part of Copper Blue. Beaster and File Under: Easy Listening are also now available in deluxe packages from Edsel in the UK, and the cost is actually not that expensive when ordering direct from some of the international megastores (they will remove VAT when orders are made outside of Europe).
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