The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

CULT ’90s: Sugar – ‘Copper Blue’

Influenced: Teenage Fanclub, The Breeders, The Boo Radleys, Sebadoh, Guided By Voices, Idlewild, The Cribs, Pulled Apart By Horses, Drenge

Influenced by: The Beatles, Big Star, R.E.M., The Replacements, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Dinosaur Jr., Pixies, Nirvana

After toiling away for years with the criminally underrated Hüsker Dü in the Eighties, it was with no small amount of irony that Sugar, Bob Mould’s first group project following their demise, should deliver him by far and away the most commercially successful venture of his career. Copper Blue was made comparatively quickly, and its colossal, radio-friendly production made it ideally placed to take advantage of the boom in alternative rock following the breakthrough success of Nirvana in the early Nineties.

25 years after its release, it still stands as one of the finest albums of the alternative rock revolution that saw American guitar music gatecrash the mainstream, a cultural reverberation that lasted the whole decade.

BACKGROUND

However, both Mould and Sugar were worthy of their success regardless of the felicitous circumstances of Copper Blue’s release. As much as is made of Nevermind, equally influential in the album’s creation appears to have been the effect of hearing My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. While touring a solo album in late 1991, Mould played some demos of new songs for Creation label boss Alan McGee, who’d been a fan of the Hüskers since he heard their break-neck deconstruction of ‘Eight Miles High’ nearly ten years before. While driving between gigs, he heard the exquisite but monstrously expensive MBV classic on cassette in a rental car.

“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This was the record I thought was never going to be made,” Mould remembered many years later about Loveless and the impact it had. “I was still wet from performing, we were racing to get back to London, and the whole thing was a religious experience. No one spoke a word for the entirety of the record.”

READ MORE: My Bloody Valentine // ‘Loveless’ at 25 years old

Indeed, Loveless was the kind of album that seemed to resolve and justify the kind of massive walls of noise that Mould had specialised in with Hüsker Dü for years, wringing an unholy din from the very depths of his soul. Inspired, Mould quickly formed a new band with bassist David Barbe and drummer Malcolm Travis and set about transforming his demos into what became Copper Blue a year later. In doing so, he would reap the fruits of a musical legacy that he himself had helped to harvest, a one-man bridge between the very different guitar music scenes of 1987 and 1992.

SUBSTANCE

Particularly for any lover of loud rock music, Copper Blue is an experience of pure, unadulterated bliss. Combining a ferocious take on melodious power-pop reminiscent of Zen Arcade-era Hüskers with a new-found ear for hooks and Mould’s trademark bleak lyrics, the contrast between light and dark was an extremely pleasing paradox. Mould’s distinctive vocals, placed somewhere between a nasal roar and an impassioned yelp, gave the entire mix that little bit of extra clout to raise Copper Blue above its competitors.

The distilled essence of Sugar comes in its massive grunge-pop anthems, like the audio downpour of opener ‘The Act We Act’ that could have come from any point in the 1980s American underground. Once this stall is set, Mould and his compadres go through the Pixies ‘Debaser’ pastiche ‘A Good Idea’ with tongue-in-cheek, his impassioned nasal voice even slipping into a decent Black Francis impersonation by its end. The chiming, sonorous melody of ‘Changes’ comes through loud and clear even beneath the gauze of trebly guitar noise, and is something that could easily have come from 1965-era Beatles. ‘Helpless’ doesn’t even need a chorus to make its impression, its rising guitar figure carrying it all the way through.

Through the middle of the record, though, is where Copper Blue becomes truly special and memorable, rather than simply impressive. The vast, vertiginous ‘Hoover Dam’, with its keyboard and organ flourishes, make you truly feel as if you’re “standing on the edge” of the titular American landmark. Mould’s vocal delivery of a line like “spinning down a hole / I’m losing all control” is pure pop, despite all his impeccable underground credentials. The swaying, forceful rhythm of ‘The Slim’ harks back to the raw energy of Mould’s former band, his voice growing increasingly impassioned as he tells a harrowing tale of losing a friend to AIDS.

Following this, the mood gets much brighter with the joyous, bittersweet power-pop gem ‘If I Can’t Change Your Mind’, a piece of old-fashioned ‘60s guitar pop re-tooled for the ‘90s guitar scene that explodes with energy. If you can’t feel good after this, there’s no hope for you. ‘Fortune Teller’ and ‘Slick’ then revert to the style of Copper Blue’s opening sequence, before the epic sweeps of ‘Man On The Moon’ see Mould and Sugar throw everything at the song before it burns itself out majestically.

LEGACY

Released on Creation in the late summer of 1992, Copper Blue enjoyed instant acclaim, making it to the top of NME’s Albums of the Year and seventh on the influential Pazz & Jop poll while selling in excess of 300,000 copies – a massive success for an indie label.

Symbolically, Copper Blue is the sound of an unappreciated, underground legend tearing things up and starting again, both emotionally and creatively, and succeeding far beyond anybody’s wildest expectations, most of all his own, and beginning the second act of Mould’s rollercoaster career.

It was also a gateway experience for a new generation of music fans. Not only did it open up a new and younger audience for Mould himself, but the sounds of Copper Blue also encouraged those fans to explore Hüsker Dü’s back catalogue and, by extension, an entire decade of ‘80s American underground music – The Replacements, Dinosaur Jr., Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth and the likes.

An EP of overspill material from the Copper Blue sessions, titled Beaster, was released the following April. In September 1994, exactly two years and two days after their debut, a second record called File Under: Easy Listening was released. While it contained all the same energy, it didn’t quite have that instantly winsome quality that made its predecessor such a huge success. A B-sides compilation, Besides, followed in 1995 before Mould disbanded Sugar after their last ever gig in Japan in the spring of 1996, returning to his own solo career.

Listen to Copper Blue here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

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