Thursday, February 22, 2007

Sugar and Water: "A Good Idea"

Sugar's Copper Blue has been a favorite of mine since it came out all the way back in 1992. Sugar was the brainchild of Bob Mould and while the sound is more accessible than in his Husker-Du days, the lyrics are still plenty dark. In fact, the buzzsaw-light guitars mixed with the pop-friendly (or, at least, pop-friendlier) hooks mixed with the dark lyrics make it sound even creepier. On the whole, Mould's lyrics on Copper Blue are clever without being cute, and insightful without being ponderous. In the best moments, the lyrics offer observations that hit you later on as you recontextualize what Mould is singing about.

Through an ecocritically blue lens, there are two songs that stand out on Copper Blue: "A Good Idea" and "Hoover Dam." The first is darker, the second contemplative, yet both use water and submersion as a means of examining one's life.

"A Good Idea" focuses on a pair of lovers moving to, and then submerging in, a river as the song's narrator watches them at a near distance from the ocean, marking the place of the events in the space where the river finally runs into the ocean. It's a storytelling song, and the story is revealed in layers. There are three main verses: in the first, it's a love song; in the second, it's a song of murder; and in the third, we learn the position of the singer and, in fact, that this song isn't being told from the POV of an omniscient, uninvolved singer, but from a witness to the event.

The first verse sets up two lovers moving towards a river, with the only hint of darkness coming from the fourth line's use of the word "temptation," which Mould sings at a lower octave to highlight the meaning. There's no meaning attached to temptation, however; temptation could as easily signify a romantic frolic as it could an illegal, Lolita-esque rape.

"They went down to the river
On a warm summer night
The air was think with the
Smell of temptation
He said why don't we lay in the water
Let the water run over me
And she grinned and she said
Now she said now she said

Now that's a good idea / She said she said / Now that's a good idea / She said she said / Now that's a good idea / She said she said / Now that's a good idea / She said she said."

(The choruses do get a bit repetitive.)

The man is playing the role of both aggressor and submissive, suggesting they get in the water, but then he follows that by offering to submerge himself. Yet in the second verse he's clearly in the dominant role and the "temptation" from the opening is revealed as one of murder. The second verse also clarifies that the unnamed river(here called a stream) is close enough to the ocean to be inundated with seaweed, meaning it is likely an estuary. UNESCO defines estuaries as "a semi-enclosed coastal body of water having free connection to the open sea and within which sea water is measurably diluted with fresh water deriving from land drainage." (For a solid, quick overview of estuaries, visit here.)

"He held her head high in his hands
He held her down deep in the stream
He saw the bubbles and matted hair
Mixed in with seaweed
She started to scream
Was it something I said
Was it something I said
And she said and she said
And she said she said"

Even given the presence of seaweed, we can't know what specific kind of estuary we have here, though it is perhaps an inverse estuary. Inverse estuaries are dominated by sea water, and the salinity of the water increases as you move inland. This could be the basis for the "river" of the first verse being a "stream" in the second.

The next mini-verse, like the first, is open to initial interpretationl. The woman says it's a "good idea ... to be alone with you," which may be ironic or honest. The last two lines of the verse open up a world of possibilities. She admits she's been "waiting for year and I'd rather be dead," but we have no way of knowing if death, perhaps, is something she's longed for (terminal disease?) or if dealing with this guy has been so unbearable that she doesn't want to deal with him anymore.

"Now that's a good idea she said she said
To be alone with you she said she said
I've been waiting for years
And I'd rather be dead
That's a good idea he said he said"

Whatever her reasoning for desiring death, he agrees with it, but we don't know if this is stone cold murder or some kind of twisted mercy killing. The next mini-verse indicates the woman is in tears, but there's no base for interpreting it. We just know she's crying:

"He held her down in the river
He held her down in the water
Another river of mud
Wash away those tears
He said and he said
Now that's a good idea"

In the third full verse, we learn the singer is close enough to hear them, but apparently not close enough to be seen by them. Based on the perspective of a witness, the song calls up Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight." Thematically, Sugar's song could work as a prequel to Collins' song; Collins has witnessed a man committing some kind of negative act and argues how if that man was drowning, "I would not lend a hand." Mould doesn't give us an indication the narrator thinks one way or the other about it; he's left wondering about it, but thinks, perhaps, "some things are best left alone."

"I saw them from the ocean
She didn't seem to mind
Didn't fight at all
She didn't fight it at all
Some things are best left alone
Sometimes I'm best left alone
And sometimes I see you in the water
At night at night at night"

There's still guilt as he's haunted by the image of what he's seen, but given the acceptance of the girl to her fate he rationalizes doing nothing because he doesn't know exactly what did happen. Perhaps to ease his own guilt, the narrator finishes out the song with a repetitive matra of "it's a good idea, it's a good idea / she said she said" and ends with the hope that she asked for the man to kill her:

"That's a good idea she said she said
I wanna feel you in the water
With your hands on my head
Push you down into the water."

So how are we to read the last line? All indications are that these are all the woman's words; that she wants to feel him in the water with his hands on her head (presumably to drown her) fits the song. But what does the last line mean, "Push you down into the water?" It doesn't make sense for her to have said that, yet there's no indicaton the dialogue has switched over to the male, as Mould has been careful to lay in everywhere else in the song. Back in the opening verse, however, it is the male who first suggests being submerged in the water, further complicating the singer's ability to understand exactly what he's seeing.

Ultimately, I think the song is an ode to minding one's own business. Interpretation stands on an thin edge when you've seen enough to know you haven't seen enough to draw a definitive conclusion.


Tommbert said...

What I like about the song is that there is a certain amount of place ambiguity that parallels the moral ambiguity of the subject matter. You make a good case for the estuary, though. And what's more, even if it is an estuary, it still has that interstitial space about it, neither really moving water nor open water, that can hold up the place-based ambiguity.

Beyond the symbolic value, though, I think there's a great usefulness of the real estuary there in that it makes a practical place to commit murder. If I remember my CSI correctly (yes, that's tongue in cheek...sort of) bodies dumped in water near enough the shore--as would happen with the waders in the song--wouldn't make it past the breakers and wash up on the shore again. Also, bodies left in rivers hug the shore or sink. In either case, they're easily found by search parties and divers. An estuary, however, is a great place to get homicidal since the movement/nonmovement of the water there combined with the excess of plantlife makes great cover. Bodies get tangled underwater, obscuring them from searchers, and so on.

Now I feel creepy.

Anyway, neat way to bring a great album into the posting. Makes me want to go dig a copy up since I think it's missing from my collection.

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