Compositions for the Young & Old, Pt. 5 | Hüsker Dü, “Zen Arcade” (1984)

Exploring the album where punk grew up, a landmark concept double-LP that stretches the limits of punk and hardcore.

 

 

 

Mike: Continuing on in our discussion of all things related to our hero Bob Mould, today we will cover Hüsker Dü’s 1984 double album and influential masterpiece, Zen Arcade. The band continues the trend they started with Everything Falls Apart and Metal Circus of moving away from hardcore and adopting a more accessible sound. Zen Arcade tells the story of a young man who is frustrated with his miserable life at home, who goes out into the world to discover it’s an awful place as well. The songs cover alienation, bad home life, abuse, addiction, and spirituality, among other things. There was a lot of music in the mid to late ’80s that covered these same issues, with the lower classes in American society becoming angrier with policies of the Reagan administration and the greed generation. Continuing their trend of throwing off the reins of strictly being a hardcore punk band, Hüsker Dü heavily incorporate other musical elements, blending them with their brand of snarling punk to solidify what would become their trademark sound. Their shift in sound and incorporating a much more melodic tone and pace, coupled with this being a double album, was just unheard of in the punk scene at the time. Almost all of the tracks were first takes, and the full album was recorded in around 40 hours’ time. Just inconceivable.

Jason: It’s amazing the evolution that took place here. On Metal Circus, Hüsker Dü were only chipping away at the edges of what punk in general, and hardcore in particular, were capable of. Then, just 9 months later, they return with this sprawling 23-song behemoth where literally anything goes. Acoustic folk? You got it. Chugging heavy metal guitars and topical lyrics? Sure. Pretty piano interludes? Check. Trippy sound collages? All right. Thirteen-minute free jazz freakouts? Hey, why not?

Mike: And they do it effortlessly.

Also, if you’re paying attention, since 1982 they have released two full LPs, an EP that really could have been an LP, and now a double LP. They would go on to release four more LPs in the span of four years. In today’s world of music, that is just an insane amount of output, and every album from here on out received almost unanimous critical acclaim.

Zen Arcade is such a frantic fucking masterpiece. Both Grant and Bob take huge leaps in the seriousness and maturity of their lyrics. Bob’s guitar work is blistering here, and he’s is not afraid to step well away from the norms of punk and just let it flow. Sure, there is the intense buzzsaw on songs like “What’s Going On,” “Broken Home, Broken Heart,” and the stellar opener “Something I Learned Today,” but he’s in full power-pop mode on “Chartered Trips.” There is a lot going on here. It should be noted that Grant’s drumming is a lot defter here, as well, mixing punk, rock, jazz, and a slight bit of funk into some of his beats.

And as you pointed out when we reviewed Metal Circus, Bob keeps up with the fantastic soloing and guitar work on Grant’s songs.

Jason: And, of course, Greg is no slouch, either. I think the power that these three get off each other is perfectly exemplified in the album’s first few seconds. Grant starts a martial drum beat, then Greg comes in with that beautifully burbling bass line, then the guitar comes in and all three just take off together at lightning speed, thrashing along in perfect unity.

Given the sometimes improvisational nature of this album, I think Greg is given a lot more of a chance to shine than normal, and he takes full advantage. I don’t hesitate in saying he’s easily the best bassist Bob has worked with, and the only one who really has a definable personality to his bass work.

Mike: He certainly has some swagger going on many of the songs here. With the mix of this album being crap, sometimes it’s hard to tell. Come on, guys, reissues!

Jason: I know! If for no other reason than I want to hear the two outtakes, which aren’t even on the couple of bootlegs I’ve managed to procure.

Mike: Bob has said several times he doesn’t need the money so isn’t in any hurry to work on it. It’s good that he’s set, but our collective ears would like a remastered copy. (And I don’t collect women’s ears in a bucket… Oh, Jeffrey). (Sorry, random Coupling quote.)

Jason: One thing about the sprawling nature of this album, though: It makes it a tough nut to crack for a new listener. It was (I’m pretty sure) the second Hüsker album I bought, but it took getting pretty much all of the others before I “got” Zen Arcade.

Mike: Spot on; it’s not super accessible due to the concept. Some of the songs are able to stand on their own; however, one does discover the riches once they know a little about the idea and listen in full. I believe that is why they decided against any singles. With that said, “Something I Learned Today,” “Never Talking To You Again,” “Chartered Trips,” and “Turn On the News” all would have made great singles, in my opinion.

Bob starts us off fantastically with two snarly slabs of guitar driven hardcore. Even though the album is about some kid leaving home, I wonder how much of “Broken Home, Broken Heart” is autobiographical for Bob. The way he discusses his childhood and growing up with an abusive father and passive mother makes you really wonder if he really writing about himself as a catharsis.

Jason: I think a lot of it almost has to be autobiographical. I mean, I can’t imagine anyone being able to summon the fury of songs like “Pride” and “I Will Never Forget You,” or—especially—the end of “Whatever,” without it coming from a pretty personal place.

“Whatever” just slays me. It might be Bob’s best song, lyrically. “Mom and Dad, I’m sorry/ Mom and Dad, don’t worry/ I’m not the son you wanted, but what did you expect?/ I built my world of happiness to combat your neglect.”

I mean, damn.

Mike: I know, right!? Shit is intense. You really cannot have that kind of fury, that kind of anger and resentment, without that kind of pain in your life. And especially with Bob being in the closest still and wrestling with how to be himself, knowing that his parents will not understand or will shun him.

And the guitar on “Pride,” Jeez-o-Pete. This may be the closest he gets to straight up metal. Until the intro to “The Biggest Lie”…

Jason: Backtracking a bit to what I was saying about how this album is a tough nut to crack: I kind of hated ZA for a long time. Coming into ZA knowing only Sugar, his post-Sugar solo albums, and the much poppier (and easier on the ears) Flip Your Wig, this album just sounded like buzzsaw noise to me. The way LSR sounds to me now is the way ZA sounded to me at first.

And the schizophrenia of the track list didn’t help. Look at the way the album flows up front: hardcore, hardcore, jangly acoustic folk, droning almost-pop, trippy instrumental looped backward, metal guitar freakout, sideways parody of “I Want Candy,” and then four songs in a row of blistering hardcore delivered at top scream.

I mean, holy shit. When your idea of punk is Green Day and your idea of heavy music starts with Metallica and ends with Megadeth, that level of insanity is just hard to wrap your brain around. For the longest time, the only song I would listen to on ZA was “Never Talking to You Again.”

Mike: Yes! You noticed the “I Want Candy,” also.

Jason: I can’t help but notice Grant didn’t share songwriting credit, there.

Mike: Valid point. Having been a Slayer and thrash fan, it was less jarring to me. The bits that took me the longest to understand were the palate-cleansing songs and the just odd ones. Once I understood what was going on from front to end, they made perfect sense. “Hare Krsna” is the main character trying to discover spirituality to cope. On its own, you would never get that

Jason: It took getting Warehouse and Candy Apple Grey and New Day Rising and working my way through what the band was doing to even get an “in” into what they were trying to do with ZA.

And even then, side 2 (“Beyond the Threshold” through “Staring at the Sea”) was off-putting for me for a good long while. Once I pushed my way past that stuff to find “Newest Industry,” I finally had a song I could grab onto (I’ve always been a sucker for left-wing political punk), and I expanded out from there until I was pretty much obsessed with all of side 3 (“Somewhere” through “The Tooth Fairy and the Princess”). I started listening to that song cycle (plus “Turn on the News,” the closest the album gets to something you might have maybe heard on the radio in 1984) constantly for months and months and months, and the rest of the album gradually opened itself up to me.

I think that’s worth noting. I mean, not to spoil anything, but we’re probably going to both give this album an A. But that doesn’t mean that any music fan can pick up this album and fall in love with it. It isn’t as immediately accessible as, say, London Calling. If hardcore punk isn’t your typical milieu, it’ll probably take more than a few listens to get what all the fuss is about, let alone discover all of the album’s charms.

Mike: That is a very good point. It is not an album you are going to get on the first listen, even to someone who is into hardcore.

Not sure if you’ve noticed in the vocals, but through each song whoever is singing sounds more haggard, and the same from the front to end of the album, in general. I’m not sure if that is by design to help with the whole theme,fffffffffffff or if it’s a result of the hurried nature of recording everything in one take.

And in my opinion, this is Bob’s most “aggressive” album in terms of both his songwriting and (definitely) guitar playing.

DOGS & PONIES

Mike: It really is difficult to pick my tops here, as there are several and all for differing reasons. It would be easy to say my least favorites would be the little intermissions of piano ballads and backward guitar, but they play a part in tying the songs together.

Jason: Those little piano pieces are what make that section of the album to me. And because the album really is the sum of its parts, I hate to pick out tracks and say they’re my least favorite. I will say when I casually listen to the album (i.e., when I’m listening to it for 15 minutes at a time in the car, rather than from beginning to end), there are a lot of songs I do consistently skip: “Dreams Reoccurring”/”Reoccurring Dreams,” “Beyond the Threshold,” “Pride,” and “Masochism World.”

Another thing I’ll say is that, while I get the way the whole album ties together, I wouldn’t say I “get” the plot of this. But then, I’ve never really “gotten” rock opera in general.

Mike: I get this one just because the overall theme here is similar to many songs in the ’80s.

Jason: As for Ponies, this album has plenty. “Something I Learned Today” is the Hüskers’ finest opening track (which is really saying something). “Never Talking to You Again” is a wonderful jangly folk tune that sounds unlike anything else in the band’s catalog. The entire stretch from “Somewhere” through “Turn on the News” is pretty much unstoppable, with “Somewhere” and “Whatever” being two of my absolute favorite songs by anyone ever.

Mike: “Something I Learned Today” is an incredible opener and just sets the tone. “Chartered Trips” is a must. “Turn On the News” is a must. And I love “Never Talking To You Again” for that same reason. I suspect fans back then were like, “WTF is this?!” “Pink Turns to Blue” is pretty fantastical, as well.

Jason: “Whatever” may be one of the most powerful things Bob has ever written. So many emotions everyone’s felt about trying to measure up to the expectations of those around you, and how much it hurts to not be able to live up to them, phrased so perfectly and delivered so passionately. That’s one for the time capsule right there.

Mike: And even though it’s just designed as an intermission to bridge to the closer, “The Tooth Fairy and the Princess” is pretty trippy with its mantras.

“Whatever” is timeless. You can pick youth from any generation and they all will say essentially these things.

FINAL GRADES

Mike: Overall, yes, this gets an A. Bob has said in several interviews that he feels this is the best album they did. I don’t know if I can say that, however; New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig are just as powerful. NDR has a few tracks that I can live without, but man, the strong ones there more than make up for it.

As artists, this is definitely the album on which Bob and Grant come into their own and prove they are so much more than just a hardcore band. They make you challenge your notions of what punk is and should be.

Jason: Definitely an A. A landmark album that kicked opened up the doors to what was possible in punk and alternative music, and most definitely deserving of its vaunted status.

Tune in tomorrow as Mike and Jason explore the album where the Hüskers’ punk starts to go pop, 1985’s New Day Rising.

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