Sugar File Under: Easy Listening
For all the (justifiable) attention Bob Mould receives for his work in Hüsker Dü, he experienced the greatest success of his career in Sugar, the trio he formed a few years after the demise of Hüsker Dü in 1988. The perfect blend of guitar crunch and poppy melodies on Sugar’s first two releases, Copper Blue and the Beaster EP, struck at the right time for the burgeoning alternative-rock movement—a movement whose luminaries owed more than a little to the sound Mould pioneered in Hüsker Dü. Copper Blue and Beaster far outsold anything in that band’s discography, and they propelled Mould into a brighter spotlight than he’d ever experienced.
And that was a problem. Success has a way of dismantling the parts of life that inspire great art. In Mould’s case, he wrote what became Copper Blue and Beaster in a Williamsburg loft at a leisurely pace over the course of a year. After Copper Blue in 1992 and Beaster in 1993, Sugar toured for 13 months, Mould moved to Austin, produced another band’s album, and went on a solo tour. In his memoir, See A Little Light: The Trail Of Rage And Melody, Mould estimates he had maybe 12 weeks to write what would become File Under: Easy Listening. “I had produced some of my best work (Workbook and Copper Blue) during periods of relative and sustained quiet,” he notes. He wrote FU:EL under much different conditions.
Writing it was one problem; recording it was another. The band spent two months at Triclops in Atlanta, unable to get the right sound and straining internally, as drummer Malcolm Travis struggled to record his parts. Eventually Mould ended the sessions, returned to Austin, and erased everything that he had recorded in Atlanta. (“There wasn’t really anything lost, other than a great deal of time and money,” says engineer Jim Wilson in the liner notes. “No lost masterpiece there.”) Working backward with Wilson, Mould recorded his guitar parts to a drum machine, then had bassist David Barbe record his, then finally Travis. After all the struggle, the new songs came relatively easily. “But by then, [the album] had sort of been beat to death,” Mould told The A.V. Club last year.
File Under: Easy Listening was seemingly destined to be the lesser of the Sugar full-lengths, which remains the case nearly two decades later on Merge’s loving reissue of the album. The two-disc set features the nicely muscular remastering of FU:EL, B-sides recorded at the same time (previously available on the compilation Besides), a live performance from November of 1994 in Minneapolis (also previously available on a limited-edition version of Besides), and expansive liner notes with photos, flyers, press clippings, and an oral history of the album.
Mould recorded 16 songs during the FU:EL sessions, with 10 making the cut. And here the album’s problems continued. Mould notes in See A Little Light that the 16 songs fell into three styles: “perfectly good pop songs, acoustic-flavored sprawl, and punkier songs.” Many tracks stand with Sugar’s best work (“Your Favorite Thing,” “Can’t Help You Anymore,” “Explode And Make Up”) or at least on par with Copper Blue (“Gift,” “Gee Angel,” “Believe What You’re Saying”). But the Barbe-led “Company Book” is a slog, and the daydream of “Panama City Motel” is pleasant but slow, kicking off a back half that doesn’t cohere. It’s easy to wonder how FU:EL would’ve changed with “Mind Is An Island” and “Going Home,” two fast-tempo rockers, in addition to those 10 songs, or in lieu of a couple. Barbe’s “In The Eyes Of My Friends” is far catchier than “Company Book,” though his slower “Frustration” has a nice, slow burn that could’ve worked too.
Mould never really shook his doubts about the album, either, though he also doubts he could’ve changed it. “The pop songs opened the record, and had I closed the album with the punky stuff, I would have given the people exactly what they expected and wanted,” he writes in his book. “Maybe that would have made it a more commercial record, but artistically speaking, it was time to move on.” And he would, more than he expected, less than a year later. Barbe’s need to be with his family, Mould’s doubts about Travis, and the struggle of making File Under: Easy Listening combined to end Sugar in early 1996.
In his A.V. Club interview, Mould wondered if a “crisis of confidence” held him back on File Under: Easy Listening, or if he should’ve put all 16 songs on it. With the reissue, he does that. It doesn’t fix File Under: Easy Listening, but it shows an artist whose restlessness nudged him in another direction just as his fame started to catch up with his influence.
(Note: The Copper Blue/Beaster reissue will be featured in The A.V. Club’s Gateway To Geekery series Aug. 2.)