Sugar - File Under: Easy Listening
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
What shamed Bob Mould made him a hero. Like the rest of us he’s probably happy with the man he sees in the mirror: a ropily attractive fortysomething with a shaved head, openly homosexual, who records intermittently (and likely as not it’ll be an electronic record). Let’s go back a few years—when Mould was overweight, had hair like wilted lettuce, muted his sexuality, and released albums at a frenzied pace (and likely as not they were melodic hardcore records). His anonymity endeared him to us; it mitigated an ambition which pummeled colleagues and competition, with a guitar sound to match.
Sugar—the band he formed almost five years after Hüsker Dü could no longer contain two songwriters of equal talent and varying ambition—was in many ways the ideal situation for a man of Mould’s ego. No rival songwriters competing for album space (and, presumably, boys). An aural sheen as resplendent and impenetrable as chain mail. Bandmates who would do as told. For those of us watching the convulsions in 1992’s rock world Copper Blue represented a bold and—in retrospect—conservative manifesto. In ten dense songs of refulgent efficiency, Mould demonstrated how the professionalism implicitly disdained by Pavement could signify as an aesthetic triumph. No grand gestures or arch jokes here—Copper Blue’s metaphors and hooks are as proletariat as Mould’s serviceable voice. This is bootstrap rock, impatient with miserabilism, but with a candy apple gray core; it smells like post-teen spirit, a Nevermind with Pat Buchanan at the mic.
If you thought Mould was as funny as a smokestack, the title of Sugar’s second full-length release confirmed it. Give him credit for honesty. In the context of his loud-rock career, File Under: Easy Listening is both a repudiation and a statement of noisome predictability: I’ll make you fuckers hum; you’ll hum till you vomit (one listen to “Can’t Hurt You Anymore” will make you loath the sound of a beautiful hook). Eschewing the occasional keyboard flourishes of its predecessors, FU:EL’s arrangements (by sole producer Mould) echo the blam-blam-blam concision of Flip Your Wig, which is to say, sprawl is an urban legend. Really, this is Flip Your Wig with three variations on “Games” and “Makes No Sense At All” and no Grant Hart gumming up the works with angst and Beatles homages. Aerodynamic marvels like “Gift” (the closest thing to Copper Blue’s wind tunnel assault) and “Gee Angel,” are designed, no doubt, according to arcane algorithms vacuum-sealed in their creator’s central processor. “Arcane” because, for all Mould’s lucidity, I still haven’t figured out if “Granny Cool,” the malevolent dismissal of a certain Johnny-come-lately, pokes fun at erstwhile partner Hart or Mould himself, the renascent artist who could never resist reminding interviewers that Nirvana had approached him about producing Nevermind.
What an unexpected development—that Mould, who in Hüsker Dü tolerated the aptly named Spot’s production for so many years, would fetishize clarity, even when it’s at the service, as it plainly is on FU:EL, of a renewed interest in strafing his audience. While “What You Want It to Be” drills its rote chorus into one stubborn wall, the irony of bassist David Barbe’s “Company Man,” the album’s dreary concession to democracy, is lost on its author. But Mould’s love songs (frustratingly gender-neutral, of course) are as luminous as you expect the truth to be, and as muddled if you stare too closely. “Explode & Make Up” snaps like one of those Richard Thompson ballads in which the performer’s murderous intentions keep backfiring; it’s arguments, not reconciliation, that remind lovers that they matter. On “Your Favorite Thing” Mould, taking his quest for anonymity to its inevitable conclusion, wants a place on his lover’s bookshelf. Fat chance; blame the insistence of the guitar line and Malcolm Travis’ drumming. Maybe Mould understands dialectics after all.
A frequent companion to R.E.M.’s Monster in used CD bins, FU:EL found Mould in step with the vagaries of public taste for once; and since he’s as distracted as the proles who never bought Zen Arcade the first time around, he dissolved Sugar the following year. There he was, coming out at last in a lengthy SPIN interview remarkable for its dull candor. We understood perfectly even if the editors didn’t.