There’s an episode of The Simpsons that, bizarrely, brings Bob Mould to mind. It’s the one where Homer, in an attempt to get some recognition and glory, winds up on the Space Shuttle. All aboard nearly die due to his bumbling, but at the last moment, he jams an inanimate carbon rod into an open hatch door, saving all from being sucked out into space. When he gets back home, who gets the adoration, praise and parade? The rod, that’s who (or what.)
Okay, so I’m stretching the parallel to the thinnest degree here, but consider this: Bob Mould left iconic punk band HÃ¼sker DÃ¼ and created one of the finest albums of the 1980s, his solo debut Workbook. Critics nearly broke their collective ankles falling over it, and as well they should. Even with Mould’s rather square-jawed vocal delivery, the pop pops, the emotions are real and the instrumentation is spot-on. That Mould could graduate from the awesome fury that was HÃ¼sker DÃ¼ to this was a feat.
Not everyone thought that way, though, certainly not a lot of the diehard HÃ¼sker fans hoping the band would crap out on their Warner Bros. entries and slink back to SST Records with new, angry fire. What should have been more than a notable entry in the catalog of 1989’s releases rather remains that way to this day. I do recall an insurance company picking up the once top-ten modern rock track “See a Little Light” for use in an ad campaign, a move that usually fills me with a sense of disgust and indignation, yet I was actually pleasantly surprised. Someone other than me knows this song, I thought… Well, put one up in the plus column. But like I said before, the whole album is one plus after another.
Whether it was a conscious move to court the older fans back or simply to “visit home,” Mould’s next solo disc, Black Sheets of Rain, returned the distorted guitars to the mix, but not HÃ¼sker DÃ¼’s manic, dervish intensity — so now you had those old fans giving half-hearted thumbs up for the effort while the critics backtracked, chastising the bleak and angry tone. Now they were the ones clinging to old work versus new work. While it is not as revelatory or ultimately satisfying as Workbook, Black Sheets of Rain has aged remarkably well, showing its pop tendencies so much clearer now that we’ve passed through the Grunge Revolution. Mould was, himself, coming to grips with things behind the scenes, not just with his personal life but with his label, Virgin Records, which was reviewing the numbers of shifted units and was not happy with the flat direction. Virgin would release the Best Of set Poison Years and that would be it for them.
Landing at Rykodisc, at that point a label known more for its exhaustive reissues of the David Bowie and Frank Zappa catalogs, Mould formed a new three-piece band — but Sugar was no backtrack. Instead, this new unit successfully merged the melodic thrills of Workbook with the punch of Black Sheets and did so without being quite so glum. No, I take that back: Copper Blue is very close to Black Sheets, but the mood of the day had changed, guitar rock with lots of bite and a lot less hairspray was reemerging from the culture coma of the 1980s.
Finally, America was prepared to meet Bob Mould eye-to-eye and Homer Simpson would get his ticker-tape parade. No, I take that back too. At the moment Bob Mould the musician was getting his spotlight, the cameraman pulled the metaphorical focus and aimed it at a magazine article outing Mould as a gay man. The story stopped being about Sugar and became a litany of gossip — who outed him, and why did Mould not want to say he was gay (that it was the early ’90s, don’t-ask-don’t-tell America should have been a clue,) was it former HÃ¼sker DÃ¼ bandmate Grant Hart, etc., etc. The bottom line was that none of it was really anyone’s business but Mould’s, all the while what should have been their business, getting the word out about this crunching, volume-blasting power pop thrill ride, got lost. So did the album.
After Copper Blue came the Beaster EP, which I haven’t actually heard. The rumor, of which I had no reason to doubt, was that it contained some of Mould’s harshest material to that date, and I wasn’t in the mood for it. The follow-up album File Under Easy Listening, however, was exactly what I was looking for. In a lot of ways I think it’s a better album than Copper, but I’m in a minority apparently. It certainly wears its power pop button more prominently than its predecessor, but it still did poorly in sales. I remember going to the local CD shop and glomming up the singles for “Your Favorite Thing” and “Believe What You’re Saying” just to grab more of the new songs as both discs had three unreleased extra tracks per (all of which can be found on the Besides compilation.) The owner of the shop, a friend of mine, commented how he was selling copy after copy of HÃ¼sker DÃ¼’s Land Speed Record that month, but he couldn’t hardly give away Sugar CDs (he made me pay for them anyway.) Some things just hadn’t changed after all this time.
Sugar was done and Bob Mould was a solo act again. I didn’t follow along. I haven’t heard anything from his eponymously titled follow-up right to his most recent District Line, I haven’t heard anything from his dance music projects, and I can’t precisely say why I didn’t bother. Perhaps I had chosen the point of his career I liked best, much as his previous critics and fans had, and decided to stay there. Readers’ suggestions are, as ever, welcomed, but for me this was a remarkable period of an artist’s career, a period that is now passed. Mould has moved on as well; several interviews in recent years find him in a better place than he was during the tumult of the Workbook-through-Sugar days. Fortunately, all the material can still be found and is worth checking out. Mould didn’t get his big moment in the spotlight as Virgin Records or so many of his collaborators planned, but what he did get was a deep respect from fans of pop music.
Next week, we take a look at David Byrne and Brian Eno’s new collection Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, a disc I can tease by saying it’s the best work that either have produced in years. Intrigued? See you next week.