Bob Mould: hardcore pioneer, control freak, pop genius. And yet, he’s a man who doesn’t exactly thrive under pressure. Much like his solo debut – the Richard Thompson-channelling Workbook, written in the tinnitus-ridden fallout of Hüsker Dü – the first two Sugar albums were made at Bob Mould’s pace, and at Bob Mould’s convenience, on Bob Mould’s own terms; he even shopped them around to labels at his own leisure. Composed in sobriety and domestic bliss with no-one breathing down Mould’s neck, Copper Blue and Beaster have emerged as two of the best rock records of the last few decades. A pair of lean, muscular masterpieces that cement Bob Mould as a Great Songwriter in the classic sense of the word. Applying the kind of considered arrangements of Workbook to a bunch of Extremely Loud Pop Music, Bob Mould – bolstered by bassist Dave Barbe and drummer Malcolm Travis – pulls out relentlessly great performances of some incredible songs. Hell, the opening triumverate of ‘The Act We Act’, ‘A Good Idea’ and ‘Changes’ apparently all emerged in one day in the exact order they appear on the record – that, my friends, is the work of a man on a roll.
Copper Blue, by all rights, deserves to be looked on as a masterclass in pop songwriting; featuring the catchiest hooks of Mould’s career, it’s a maturation of everything he’d been working towards in the ten years that preceded it. Those opening tracks – in fact, the whole of side one – are absolutely perfect, from the driving ‘The Act We Act’ to the swirling pseudo-psychedelics of ‘Hoover Dam’. Meanwhile, ‘If I Can’t Change Your Mind’ is a gold standard hit in every sense but the chart position – a jangling giant, all twelve-strings and tambourines.
The pre-out Mould used both records to drop super-subtle hints about his sexuality, and it’s moments like ‘The Slim’ (a tribute to a friend who fell victim to AIDS) or the entirety of Beaster - an acidic half-hour of Catholic catharsis – that make up the emotional crux of Sugar’s music. On ‘Tilted’ and ‘JC Auto’, Malcolm Travis’s drums thrash like the very definition of self-flaggelation, while the tapestry-like ‘Feeling Better’ sees shards of melody collide with one another in seemingly random order, before tying together in a glorious chorus. While thematically and musically separate, the fact that these two albums were written concurrently makes for an incredible ninety minutes, ebbing and flowing their way to the closing keyboard hymnal ‘Walking Away’ which – unfortunately – Mould was not given the chance to do before his band’s third record.
And so to File Under: Easy Listening, a record which came out of the precise opposite circumstances to its predecessors. Here is the sound of a man – and a band – trying to make a Brilliant Record, with all the scrapped sessions and swapped studios that come with it. Ultimately, they failed – though FU:EL works on its own merits as a solid mid-’90s alternarock album, it can’t help but be something of a disappointment after Copper Blue and Beaster. ‘What You Want It to Be’ is one of Mould’s most formulaic numbers, and ‘Panama City Motel’ is an aimless acoustic mumble, while the ’Company Book’ towers above far more of the songs here than it should, given its status as bassist Dave Barbe’s sole writing/vocal credit on a Sugar LP. Nevertheless, when it’s good, FU:EL is on fire; opening track ‘Gift’ is a ferocious, balls-out barrage of joyful noise, while the ringing chords and effortless top-down road tripping pop of ‘Believe What You’re Saying’ (key opening lyric: “This is where the line is…”) works perfectly as a quasi-sequel to ‘…Change Your Mind’.
For once, the bonus stuff is mostly worth investigating too; b-sides like the bubblegrunge road anthem ‘Needle Hits E’ and Barbe’s driving powerpopper ‘In the Eyes of My Friends’ comfortably hold their own with material from their parent records, even if acoustic mixes of ‘If I Can’t Change Your Mind’ and ‘Believe What You’re Saying’ are pointless at best. The two live discs, meanwhile, are proof, if proof be needed, that Sugar truly were a power trio, and a force to be reckoned with in concert, particularly on Live in Chicago 1992. Recorded when the band were just cutting their teeth as a live act, the set sees Copper Blue wheeled out in full, alongside ferocious takes on a pair of Beaster cuts and some other odds and ends, including an unexpected cover of ‘Armenia City in the Sky’ – which, as any fool knows, is The Who’s best song. You can practically hear Mould push his voice to breaking point by track two (a rampaging ‘A Good Idea’), and by the time he introduces ‘JC Auto’ with screams of “JEEE-ZUS! JEEEEEE-ZUUUUUS!”, you wind up feeling almost as breathless as he sounds – if a little less sweaty.
There are only really a couple of problems with these reissues, and for once, it’s not about pushing the mastering to breaking point – these records need to be played loud and heard loud, and it’s a blessing to get them rebuffed. No, the real issue is the entire Beaster package, with which Demon are doing something of a number on British fans. The American re-releases, on Mould’s current US label Merge, combine the mini-album with its far-less-evil twin Copper Blue, making for a comprehensive package deal on Sugar’s formative years. With no extra songs and a bonus five-track live DVD – featuring precisely zero cuts from Beaster itself – it seems like something of a missed opportunity, especially given how Mould’s memoir talks of some transcendent 1993 shows which featured a mini-set of the entire EP.
But hey, if it’s going to get more people interested in what is arguably the most fertile and inviting period of Bob Mould’s career, it’s a small complaint to make. Sure, these three albums were once bargain bin staples – especially as their frontman moved into his ill-fated “electronic” phase – but let’s not forget that all three made the top 10, at a time when that was still a challenge for a band on an indie label. At least two of these records boast absolute-classic-masterpiece status and, given that they came in the third act of Bob Mould’s career, that’s no mean feat.
Listen to Copper Blue, Beaster, File Under: Easy Listening (deluxe remasters)