Looking over his career, Bob Mould looks like a bit of a contradiction. Perhaps that’s not a surprise coming from the guy who fronted Hüsker Dü, the band that made a hardcore concept record in Zen Arcade. What was so complicated about him, though, was how his sense of what rock music was and could be evolved over time, and how our perception of him changed with it. Mould was known as the personal, emotive one in Hüsker Dü while fellow songwriter Grant Hart was (ironically) the more cerebral and political of the two. As time went on, though, Mould became the true head of the band. When manager David Savoy tragically killed himself, it was Mould that assumed some of the managerial duties. This, along with Hart’s drug troubles and the growing tension and songwriting competition between Hard and Mould eventually caused the band to implode.
But considering the constant refining of sound in Hüsker Dü’s discography, the movement from the fringes of sped-up rock to firmly melodic anthems, Mould proved to be two things at once: sonic revolutionary and surgically professional musician. This manifested itself somewhat in his solo records that followed the band’s break-up, especially on the great but oh-so-moody Black Sheets of Rain. But it wasn’t until he formed Sugar that we got to see Mould fully realize his control of rock music and all its elements. With Sugar, especially on the band’s essential debut Copper Blue, Mould showed that rock music could color within the lines and still produced one fucked up picture…in all the best ways possible.
Copper Blue has the same odd combination of punishing heft anf trebled-up lightness Hüsker Dü delivered — no one makes rock music work by downplaying the bass the way Mould does — but the parts here feel standard. Listening to the first four songs of the record, from “The Act We Act” to “Helpless,” is to hear four head-on grinders, rock songs that sound like rock songs should sound. If there’s little to surprise you with, there’s still little that leaves you wanting. The riffs are sharp, the hooks deep, Mould’s voice sweet yet barbed at the edges. These songs work within strict structural constraints, and present Copper Blue as a capital-P Professional rock album. Yet the songs don’t feel restrained or sanded down. Instead, their power is condensed, even volatile, always threatened to break out of these narrow strictures.
Even when you hit the middle of the record and things get a little stranger, when you hear those backwards drums and keys on “Hoover Dam,” the only real shift in sound is that this song and “The Slim” focus more on jangling acoustic guitars than Mould’s brittle yet huge distorted strumming. The borders expand in these moments, making more room for Mould’s vitriol. When he shouts “Now I swim alone” at the close of “The Slim,” you can feel every bit of frustrated heartbreak in his voice. And when he keens about “standing on the edge of the Hoover Dam,” there’s troubling zeal to his voice. These songs represent a darker shift in the album, one much more sinister than the shadowy churn of “The Act We Act,” but this is as much to catch us off guard as anything. In the darkness and expanding sound, Mould never loses his control, and when you get to the shiny ringing of “If I Can’t Change Your Mind,” you realize he was dragging us into the dark only to make the light that much brighter.
From there we get the hard-charging brilliance of “Fortune Teller” playing off the sneering rumble of “Slick” before the album closes with “Man on the Moon,” a song that takes the heaviness of opener “The Act We Act” and turns into something nearly triumphant. Mould, in a strong high register, closes the song singing “If you wish all your dreams will come true after all.” Of course, here Mould uses his precise control to confuse us, to muddle meaning. Is he leaving us hanging, as in if we wish all our dreams come true, then what? Or, is he telling us that the act of hope, that if we wish despite all the heartache and loss and confusion, than then our dreams will come true? The question isn’t cleared up by the album’s strangest moment — the spinning organ solo that closes it out. After all this straight-on rock, Mould pulls the rug out once more with those isolated, otherworldly notes.
But make no mistake, Copper Blue never tips over into arch eccentricity or high-minded weirdness. Mould, perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, found the most interesting complications, both sonic and thematic, in playing by the rock-music rules. With Hüsker Dü, he blew them up and then became part of a generation that redefined what rock music could do. But with Sugar, he was happy to work within the borders, to force his new band to find something new, some new power, in ground that had already been covered. They did just that, and twenty years later the album sounds as vital and timeless as it did then. No wonder Mould is out playing this album to audiences again (and one can hope the same volatile control will come out of his solo record due on Merge later this year), because even if Sugar played on long-established rock terrain, the band turned that shit into a minefield.
Come to think of it, maybe there aren’t two sides to Bob Mould. Maybe there isn’t Bob Mould the rock traditionalist and Bob Mould the punk-fueled innovator. Maybe, instead of being mutually exclusive, those elements are linked, inseparable, one. Maybe that’s the point (and brilliance) of Copper Blue.