You, me, the music, and me.

Friday, November 18, 2005

HUSKER DU Zen Arcade

SST 027 (1984)

Everyone has an album or band that speaks to them and feels like "theirs", especially when they're growing up. For me, the band was Husker Du, and the album was Zen Arcade, a double LP that I first bought in cassette form when I was about eighteen or nineteen and (much) later tracked down on vinyl. It's a song cycle in the tradition of albums like Tommy and Quadrophenia by The Who (another band that many people claim as "theirs").

Husker Du were a trio of musicians from Minneapolis, Minnesota, home of Prince. At the same time Prince was immortalizing the city's music scene in the film and album Purple Rain, Husker Du (along with fellow Minneapolis residents the Replacements) were helping to create what we call "alternative" music with their blend of Beatlesque power-pop and Ramoneslike punk thrash. Their influence can be heard today in the music of bands like Blink-182, Green Day, and most any "emo" band you could name.

Husker Du were Bob Mould (vocals, guitar), Grant Hart (vocals, drums), and Greg Norton (bass). Mould and Hart shared songwriting duties and each sang the songs that they wrote. The stark, harrowing, confessional tone of Mould's writing contrasted nicely with Hart's slightly poppier love songs, leading many critics to call them the Lennon and McCartney of the postpunk era. Side two of this album certainly contains the angriest, most cathartic music this side of Plastic Ono Band, with Mould screaming his way through "Beyond the Threshold" and "I'll Never Forget You" and the band literally throwing chairs around the studio on "Pride". Hart's "Pink Turns to Blue" and "Never Talking to You Again" provide melodic respite, despite the songs' tales of relationships gone horribly wrong.

Zen Arcade was recorded very quickly, with nearly every track a first take. The liner notes state that "the whole thing took about 85 hours, the last 40 hours straight for mixing". As a result, the production is not exactly what you'd call pristine (even by indie rock standards) but the performances are passionate and first-rate throughout. If the words to songs like "Chartered Trips" and "Newest Industry" fly by a bit too quickly and sound a bit muffled, their meaning comes through loud and clear in the passion of the band's delivery.

The group was eager to confound people's expectations as to what a punk band should sound like, filling the album with unexpected touches such as the ambient soundwashes of "The Tooth Fairy and the Princess", the piano interludes "One Step at a Time" and "Monday Will Never Be the Same", and the acoustic ballad "Never Talking to You Again" (acoustic guitars were still a rarity on punk records in the days before Green Day!). The final track, "Reoccuring Dreams", is a nearly fourteen-minute instrumental spotlighting Mould's wailing guitar solos (heresy to any punk fan who swore by the two-minute limit on songs). Musically, Husker Du seemed more interested in rebelling against their peers than the status quo, if only because they didn't want anyone setting any rules or boundaries for them.

Listening to this album nearly twenty years after I first heard it, I'm struck by how relevant it still feels, especially on a personal level. The songs about broken families and social displacement resonate just as deeply as they did when I was a teenager, and the music hasn't aged one bit. The emotions expressed in Zen Arcade are both universal and timeless; even half a lifetime later, the music of Husker Du still feels like it's "mine".


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