September 6, 2017 | by Ryan Bray
In his 2013 memoir, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody, Bob Mould recalls being shouted down by hungry Dinosaur Jr fans while onstage at an overseas festival in 1991. The irony wasn’t lost on Mould, whose work with Hüsker Dü just a few years prior helped pave the way for scores of ‘90s guitar rock heroes in training. But he didn’t wince or pout: Instead, he looked at the situation with a sense of opportunity. If fans were hankering for the loud but melodic music he helped pioneer, then maybe the time had arrived to claim some piece of the impending alternative rock boom for himself.
Mould had become an underground hero thanks to the Hüskers’ trailblazing marriage of The Ramones and The Beatles. But by the beginning of the 1990s, he found himself boxed in by his cult status. Hüsker Dü was a thing of the past, but the patterns that defined his former band followed him into his solo career. 1989’s confessional Workbook and 1991’s darker, heavier Black Sheets of Rain were critically well received, but love from the press didn’t translate so easily into sales. Watching the Dinosaur Jrs, Sonic Youths, and Nirvanas of the world climb the critical and commercial ladder to success ultimately brought Mould back to the power trio format he briefly walked away from.
Everything was in place for Mould to make waves in 1992. All he needed was a new project to get behind. Sugar — which Mould rounded out with former Zulus drummer Malcolm Travis and former Mercyland bassist Dave Barbe — took an armful of songs he’d been working out before audiences by himself and turned them into taut, crunchy guitar-rock gems. Ten of those songs were delivered to the masses in the form of Copper Blue. Bigger-sounding and more accessible than anything he’d ever done previously, the record helped Mould unlock the commercial success that had, until that point, always sat just out of his reach (By Mould’s account, the record has sold twice that of his next-best selling record, Zen Arcade). Cult heroes don’t always get to cash in on their hard work and innovation, but the timing was almost unavoidable. At a time where demand for surly guitar rock was at a premium, who better than Mould, one of the masters of the form, to strike while the iron was hot? As he wrote in his memoir, Copper Blue was his “receipt” for all of the legwork that brought him to that point in his career.
“All the fighting had been done, Nirvana had won the war, and I showed up to rightfully claim some of the spoils,” he wrote.
The narrative of an underground elder-statesman throwing back to his raucous roots at the height of the alternative era understandably won Copper Blue sizable buzz by itself. But Sugar had more going for itself than just timing. Copper Blue had the material to deliver on all the hype and expectations. With the help of engineer Lou Giordano, Mould succeeded in crafting a clean-sounding but powerful pop-rock record. The formula is perfectly demonstrated on opening track “The Act We Act.” The song unlocks in familiar enough fashion, with Mould’s buzzsaw chords and Travis’ pulverizing drums leading a heavy charge. But it’s the hooks and melodies that grab ears by the time Mould gets to the chorus. “The act we act is wearing thin,” he sings at the song’s close. “I think we wear it out again.” He might be working out some personal frustration, but there’s nothing thin or tired-sounding about Copper Blue. The singer had been working out the balance between pop songcraft and sonic muscle for years. Here, he hit it dead on.
If Hüsker Dü spent much of its career positioning itself ahead of the musical curve, Sugar was a pure product of its cultural place and time. No longer did Mould have to wait for the rest of the world to catch up with him — he was now part of the zeitgeist. My Bloody Valentine’s shoegaze masterpiece Loveless was cited by the frontman as the biggest inspiration behind his decision to return to power trio form. Elsewhere, the loud-soft-loud dynamics of the Pixies are all over the stellar guitar pop of “A Good Idea.” Mid-tempo rockers “Changes” and “Helpless” similarly sound like the kinds of songs that used to clog up FM radio dials 25 years ago. For a guy who influenced a generation, Mould clearly kept his ears open for what was happening around him when writing Copper Blue. That’s not to say everything on the record exists in a ‘90s vacuum. “Hoover Dam,” one of the record’s tracks that’s aged best over the years, showcases a more deliberate pop sensibility. “If I Can Change Your Mind,” meanwhile, is a peppy, jangle pop number evoking Mould’s love of ‘60s mainstays like The Byrds.
The latter is unquestionably Copper Blue’s most surprising moment, showcasing a levity that’s largely been absent from Mould’s prior work. “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” is a breakup song in the most straightforward sense, but you’d never guess it by listening to it. Even as Mould’s lyrics drip with scorn over a fractured relationship, the song’s major chords make it sound like he’s walking on air. There’s no hollering or vocal meltdowns on Copper Blue. Instead, Mould sounds at peace, miles away from the angry young man that made him an underground icon. Even in its few dark moments (“The Slim,” for example, grapples with the loss of a loved one to AIDS), Copper Blue sounds like it’s in the hands of someone in better control of his emotions.
To fans and critics, Sugar’s debut was another expectedly solid Bob Mould offering. But Copper Blue succeeded in not only preaching to the choir but to a wider audience primed and ready to embrace the record. For the first time in his 13-year career, Mould’s music crossed over into the mainstream. Critical heavyweights such as Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and NME heaped praise upon the record, the latter of which went so far as to hail Copper Blue as the best of the year. Videos for “Helpless,” “Changes,” and “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” found themselves in regular rotation on rock radio and MTV. If it took Mould more than a decade to break through the independent ceiling, the success that welcomed Copper Blue arguably made it worth it.
1992 was a highwater mark year for Mould in many respects, but Sugar never reclaimed the critical and commercial success of its debut. The band followed Copper Blue just months later with the six-song EP Beaster, which brought a bit more volatility and tension back into Mould’s musical fold. File Under: Easy Listening, released in 1994, marked the end of the band’s brief but productive run, save for the release of the rarities collection Besides the following year.
Sugar might not have been built for the long haul, but Copper Blue nonetheless holds an important place in Mould’s career. It’s the record where he got his rock ‘n’ roll mojo back and earned the commercial validation he’s always deserved. Never has he sounded more comfortable or in the moment on record, and he’s carried a little bit of that attitude into everything he’s done since. Now three records in with his current power trio alongside Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster, Mould is as hungry and in command of his craft as ever. Twenty-five years on, you have to wonder if he’d be where he is today if Copper Blue hadn’t rekindled that spark.
"If I Can't Change Your Mind"