Sugar - Copper Blue

THE PLAIN facts first: this is the return to centre stage that everyone hoped Bob Mould would make. After the bleak, tortured inconsistency of his last LP, 'Black Sheets Of Rain' - which marked the end of his solo deal with Virgin America and brought the final curtain down on his immediate life, post-Hüsker Dü - 'Copper Blue' is, without doubt, the dawning of a new era.

This is why it's hardly worth going into the ins-and-outs of his previous (albeit ground-breaking and influential) outfit here. The days of the Hüskers are gone. Both Mould and Grant Hart have put the whole drama behind them. All that needs saying is that Mould is back in a big way... With a razor-sharp cleaver, a new band, a revitalised, retuned outlook on the unevenness of life.

This is Mould, for the first time since his epic 'Workbook' album, recapturing his sense of The Definitive: the last word in love songs and the full stop after heartbreak. What's more, 'Copper Blue' hammers home the realisation that Bob Mould could be around for years to come. Whereas before his longevity - in keeping with his apparent state of mind - was always uncertain and open to question, these days his songs suggest a comparatively stable figure. (I can imagine people in the future treating Mould like Dylan or Springsteen, except without the references to highways, God or encroaching senility.)

Obviously, his past-history is back in fashion, after the success of Nirvana and the consequent re-investigation of the last ten years of American punk rock. There's an appetite for Mould, which helped sell out his two recent London shows with ease. But rather than simply treading water, the big man has put his stock in the new material - which is more relevant than nostalgic. Also, this album's on Creation which - at least until last week - conjured up an aura of freedom around him.

In essence Bob Mould has made a fresh start, even if it's a wary one. You wonder at times if anything is straightforward in Bob's world: does he find popping down the shops for a loaf of bread an emotionally distressing experience? Can he pick up a tin of beans without feeling that it hates him?

'Copper Blue' is a great jumble of questions and realisations. The now well-honed Mould character traits are everywhere: his underlying cynicism, the ongoing mistrust of people and the bits where his head sounds like it's about to explode. But this time round, Mould is also back on the offensive, following his past, demoralised-sounding work.

Virtually ever track is a winner, though it's the optimistic ones which shine through initially, like the recent (prophetic) single 'Changes' with its sinewy lead guitar line, and Side Two's poppy 'If I Can't Change Your Mind'. The latter has a lyric set round an argument which Bob not so much gives in to, but agrees to differ on... THE SHOCK OF IT ALL! Bob Mould in a near-forgiving state of mind! How different is that to his previous passionate vendettas?

Elsewhere, 'Copper Blue' is ferocious. Sugar have provided the right vehicle for Mould to tether his current world-view to, providing (with Mould's guitar and the tightness of the rhythm section) a set of beautifully hard-knuckled rock arrangements that give him the clout he needs to reinforce the feeling inherent in his vocals.

Following the intense intro of 'The Act We Act', the sceptical 'A Good Idea' lunges in with a gripping bassline and a teasing stab of guitar. You can imagine Mould in a video for it, taking a flame-thrower to the Garden Of Eden and sitting triumphantly amidst the ashes.

There are still glimpses of Mould's feeling of uselessness - if not with himself, then with his relationship with other people, borne out by the aforementioned 'If I Can't Change Your Mind' and the earlier 'Helpless'. He sounds like he's still going through a learning process, coming to terms with the fear of losing friends, and at the same time is worried that he's being misunderstood himself. Check his scorched-earth vocals for the sound of self-doubt.

The overall atmosphere is one of unrelenting power, mixed with a critical commentary. Side Two's opener, 'The Slim', typifies Sugar's ability to slow things down, with a grinding, winding melody that backs Mould as he tumbles through a drawn-out flashback nightmare, which makes temporary amnesia seem like a healthy option.

Mould, though, goes out with a sly nod towards the future. You can even hear him laugh, before the start of the finale 'Man On The Moon', a grunge-like lullaby that acts as a reassuringly warm, parting gesture.

For a man who sounds like he's been to hell and back and been burned along the way, Mould has returned to heal old wounds. With Sugar and 'Copper Blue' he's made a great start.


Steve Lamacq