Compositions for the Young & Old, Pt. 8 | Hüsker Dü, “Candy Apple Grey” (1986)

The unstoppable punk rock trio hits their first stumbling block on their major label debut.

 

 

Jason: Again with the prolificness: New Day Rising was followed by its twin Flip Your Wig just 9 months later. The span between FYW and Candy Apple Grey? Just 6 months. And once again, the band is totally reinventing their sound. Having moved from blistering tempo hardcore to mid-tempo pop, with CAG they’ve worked in three (!) sad, slow tempo acoustic numbers. Though, of course there’s a lot more going on than just that.
As far as major label debuts go, this is a very strange album. Tonally, it’s all over the place.
Mike: Overall, the mood of the album is darker. And yes, it’s a very strong major label debut but really far from what got them noticed, which I do not have any issue with. Just bringing that to attention.
Jason: I actually wouldn’t call CAG “strong” at all…I think it’s decidedly weaker than the albums before or after it. And CAG, to me, is Grant’s album. Bob’s songs on CAG are his weakest batch since Everything Falls Apart, but Grant knocks it out of the park on “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely,” “Sorry Somehow,” and “Dead Set on Destruction.”
Mike: On FYW, Grant gives us a great love song (“Green Eyes”) and another that really could considered one as well (“Keep Hanging On”). Here, he’s done a 360 and given us some heart wrenching and painful breakup songs with “Don’t Want To Know If You’re Lonely” and “Sorry Somehow,” the latter being particularly fantastic.
I know more about Bob’s personal life from his autobiography, but I want to know what the heck happened to Grant for him to go from “Green Eyes” to his pain-filled songs here.
Jason: That is an interesting dichotomy. Especially considering (again) how closely together these albums were made. Of course, it’s always possible the songs aren’t autobiographical at all, which is not uncommon for Grant.
Mike: As far as this being a “weak batch” of songs for Bob, “Too Far Down” and “Hardly Getting Over It” actually aren’t too bad. I think it’s Bob trying to find a way to sound more mature and older. And “All This I’ve Done For You” is Hüsker Dü’s strongest closer.
Jason: It’s kind of odd that Bob made his dour, worrying-about-dying song at the tender age of 26.
Mike: CAGwas recorded right before he got sober. And things with his partner at the time were not great, if I remember.
Jason: The thought of whether or not Bob was clean while making CAG crossed my mind while listening to “Crystal.” Though I guess the fact that he wrote a song titled “Crystal” and a song whose chorus spells M-E-T-H probably answers that question.
Mike: Just a wee bit.
Jason: Checking his autobio real quick, he doesn’t mention amphetamines directly, but he mentions a brief, ill-advised coke habit and that his drinking reached its peak during this period. He got clean in the period between CAG and 1987’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories.
Mike: “Merry Eiffel Tower High”…M-E-T-H. Eek.
Jason: This goes along with my own predispositions, but as someone who has never done and will never do drugs, I find songs that are love letters to drugs kind of insufferable. (Learning Paul McCartney wrote “Got To Get You Into My Life” about weed made me exponentially sad.) Which sucks because “Eiffel Tower High” is musically and melodically Bob’s strongest song here.
Mike: There are sadly many songs that are love letters to someone’s chosen poison. Which really is a shame.
Jason: I love the arrangement of “Eiffel Tower High,” the way it just explodes right out of that weird dog whine guitar into this big monster pop song, and especially the way Bob and Grant’s harmony vocals on the chorus are layered for maximum pop effect. But the lyrics are total nonsense.
Mike: Yeah, the lyrics are totally nonsensical. Even though it seems to be a song about drugs, it’s a peppy, upbeat song musically and lyrically and helps break up the seriousness of the rest of the LP.
Mike: This is not an uplifting album by any stretch of the imagination.
Jason: CAG is definitely a serious album. Probably too much so. And it doesn’t feel like that seriousness is earned, if that makes sense.
DOGS & PONIES
Mike: I’ve had plenty of chances to listen and re-listen to CAG. Some of these songs are a lot stronger than you give them credit for. “I Don’t Know For Sure” is pretty great, actually. It just suffers from the flat sound we’ve unfortunately come to know. “Hardly Getting Over It” is a beautiful song. I’m sure it totally freaked fans out at the time, like “What the hell is this? This is the same band that gave us this buzzsaw attack the last 4 years?” But lyrically it’s just gorgeous. I think as I’ve gotten older, I feel the sentiment a lot more. This is an incredibly mature, yet haunting song for someone who is only in his mid-20s. Someone in their mid-20s shouldn’t have to feel like that, though.
Jason: It was interesting to read Bob’s thoughts on “Crystal” in his autobio, because it turned out to confirm a lot of my suspicions about the song. It was basically a loud, angry punk rock song written because Bob didn’t want it to appear like the band was selling out by going to a major. It always felt like a song that was written to be a Loud And Fast Opening Track rather than a loud and fast song that came into existence on its own and just happens to be a good opening track. Which, I mean, the songwriter’s intentions when writing the song shouldn’t mean as much as whether or not it’s ultimately a good song, but in this case, I don’t think it is. That its slip is showing is just another knock against it.
I also loved how he said something to the effect of: “Then ‘Don’t Want to Know if You Are Lonely’…great song, first single. Then ‘I Don’t Know for Sure’…not a great song.” Heh.
Mike: Have you noticed that every opener is a Bob track?
Jason: Yeah, except kind of “From the Gut” on Everything Falls Apart (which he co-wrote with Greg but didn’t sing).
“I Don’t Know for Sure” isn’t even bad, it’s just kind of there, y’know? It only pales in comparison because it’s Bob Fucking Mould, and you know how much better he’s capable of.
Mike: Exactly. I don’t think CAG a bad album, just the cracks are showing and with so much output already in their very short career, I think they may have been reaching a bit on some of these. While many are not bad, they are not great, either. And to your point: This is Bob Fucking Mould
Jason: It’s hard to pick Dogs on this one because I’m pretty blah on most of the album. I mean, hell, (NOTE: CONTROVERSIAL OPINION COMING) I don’t even think that much of “Too Far Down” and “Hardly Getting Over It,” two songs that are widely considered among Bob’s finest moments.
On one hand, I get it: they certainly were historically important, pretty much the first time a punk rocker sat down with an acoustic guitar and laid his soul bare like that. They’re the songs that made it okay for Kurt Cobain to write “Polly” and “All Apologies” and “Pennyroyal Tea” and still be one of the punkest motherfuckers ever to walk the planet.
But as songs, they just don’t do a lot for me. I find the lyrics, as honest and heartfelt as they are, to be kind of generic, and really circular. The word “down” must appear at least one billion times in “Too Far Down.”
Mike: Good points, they were the trailblazers for any alternative/college rock band that hit after. I love “Hardly Getting Over It.” It’s a great song, though it both fits the album and is totally out of place at the same time. It’s a song that is far too mature and haunting for someone so young. Bob is far too young to feel that old, if that makes any sense at all.
Low points for me are: “Eiffel Tower High” for its nonsensical nature (even though it’s one of the few happy points on a very serious album) and “No Promise Have I Made,” which does nothing for me. It might just be the placement of it after having the same sentiment on most of the songs previously on the album. I do appreciate they were trying to do something grandiose here.
Jason: “They” being just Grant. Another detail from the autobio: Bob and Grant did “Too Far Down” and “No Promise” completely independently, and refused to share with the other guys until their song was completely recorded.
“Hardly Getting Over It” is one I can’t even put my finger on exactly why I don’t like it, but it doesn’t do much for me either.
Mike: And that’s totally fine. There doesn’t always have to be a reason
Jason: So for me, the Ponies are “Don’t Want to Know if You Are Lonely,” “Sorry Somehow,” and “Dead Set on Destruction,” “Eiffel Tower High” is kind of in the middle, and the rest is just a big sea of “meh” for me.
Mike: Your three Ponies are the same as mine. “Sorry Somehow” is so fantastic. I really do enjoy “Hardly Getting Over it” and “All This I’ve Done For You.”
FINAL GRADES
Mike: Overall I would give CAG a C+/B-. Nowhere near as groundbreaking or powerful as New Day Rising or Zen Arcade but it is better than Everything Falls Apart and Land Speed Record.
Jason: This is a tough one to grade. On the one hand, it has three of my absolute favorite Grant songs. But on the other, the listening experience as a whole is decidedly average so I’ve gotta give it a C. I hate to steer people away from the album as it’s not necessarily bad and your Hüsker collection would be far from complete without “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” and “Sorry Somehow,” but it really is a big step down from the other Hüsker records. CAG isn’t an album to avoid at all costs, but if you’re just looking to dabble in Hüsker Dü, stick with Warehouse, Flip Your Wig, New Day Rising, and Zen Arcade.
Mike: Exactly. It’s good, just not fantastic like the rest.
AND A DO-OVER…
Jason: I relistened to CAG in the car last night and I almost want to rewrite my entire entry. I have a real love-hate relationship with this album, can you tell?
Mike: [laughs]
Jason: I finally realized what makes “Crystal” not work as an opening track, in addition to everything else I mentioned yesterday. The vocals and the music are at odds with each other. The music is pretty sedate: Greg and Grant just settle into a fairly standard mid-tempo groove, and Bob’s guitar just has a gentle “bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-BUM” chug with a hint of distortion. But Bob sings the song as if it were “Something I Learned Today,” bellowing and screaming and ultimately shredding his throat. But why? The music doesn’t support screaming. The lyrics don’t support screaming. And yet there Bob goes, screaming these lyrics that are basically nonsense (“Sugar in your coffee doesn’t taste quite right” doesn’t sound any more urgent with this delivery).
And on top of that, his vocals are right up front in the mix. It’s as if Bob is screaming directly into your ears while the drums are across the room, the guitar is down the hall, and the bass is being played over at the neighbors’ house.
“Crystal” is basically a mediocre song that insists on shoving its lesser qualities right up in your face.
Mike: That holds true the second half of the song when his delivery is more harsh and frantic. The first half it was more in sync, in my opinion. It’s like they threw it on there to show they could still do something like his. Reading the lyrics, they are more poetic in written form than sung. They appear to be sociopolitical in nature…or is it all a just a euphemism for meth?
Jason: For me, his singing starts out on the wrong foot and just gets further afield as the song goes along. And saying the lyrics are “nonsense” might have been overstating it. “Cryptic,” maybe. They’re definitely more abstract. Bob’s lyrics are typically more on the direct side, but here it feels more like Bob trying to write in Grant’s trippier style.
Mike: Still comfortable with your C grade?
Jason: I think so, but it’s a very qualified C.
“Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely,” I’m not sure I’ve done justice to just why it’s one of Grant’s best songs.
That little stutter in the drums is so bizarre. It shouldn’t work. Hell, the first few times I heard the song I kind of hated it, because that little stutter just kind of kicked me out of the song. But that’s exactly what makes it so unique.
Jason: And the lyrics are fantastic. They so perfectly capture that feeling after a breakup when what you want, more than anything else, is for the other person to just get out of your life entirely as soon as humanly possible.
The phone is ringing and the clock says 4:00 AM
If it’s your friends, well, I don’t want to hear from them
Please leave your number and your message at the tone
Or you could just go on and leave me alone
Definitely one of the greatest breakup/kiss-off songs ever written.
Mike: So, a slightly personal confession about this song. On a recent personal screw-up, which I have rectified and am working towards something pretty amazingly glorious, someone that was in my life made me this fantastic mixtape (half before and half after my total eff up)…and this song was on it. Someone who makes you a high quality mix is A) fantastic and B) someone you keep in your life, especially when they include a Hüsker Dü song of such high caliber.
Jason: Hopefully the not wanting to know if you are less than lonely wasn’t directed at you!
Mike: Oh it was…because I was stupid. But thankfully I have patched things up (or at least I’m working on making it better) and this person wants to know more about HD and Bob. And I’m so willing to help educate!
Jason: Hey, I know just the 25-article series you could refer them to! :-P
Mike: Exactly!!
Jason: “I Don’t Know for Sure” is kind of underrated. I think it might suffer a little just based on its surroundings. It’s basically the exact same straightforward pop Bob tossed off all over “Warehouse,” and it’s certainly a better song than a few of Warehouse’s Dogs like “It’s Not Peculiar.” But here, it just kind of skates by, unnoticed. Maybe it’s the lyrics? It’s certainly one of the most noncommittal songs I’ve ever heard. It’s basically a two-and-a-half-minute shrug.
Faint praise, I know. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a C/C+ song on a C/C+ album so I guess that works.
I’m curious, have you ever heard a live version of “Sorry Somehow”? Considering the lead instrument is an organ (presumably played by Grant) and the guitar is just kind of chugging along in the background, I can only imagine how differently the song would sound when warped into just guitar-bass-drums. “Books About UFOs” faced a similar transition (which we did get to hear on the live album “The Living End”), but the piano on that song was always just an accent, not the main melody. Though the guitar plays a backseat role in most of the song, I do absolutely love what Bob does in the solo. It’s short and sweet and fits the song to a T. There he goes again, saving his best stuff for a Grant song.
Mike: The guitar and organ are in harmony through a lot of the song. Live? Go to 35:15 here. Or try here.
Jason: I also finally figured out why “Too Far Down” doesn’t quite work for me: it’s too long. At over four and a half minutes of strumming and soul-baring with nary a chorus to be found, the song just circles in on itself and becomes a bit too repetitive.
Part of that may be the LP album structure: CAG was laid out not as a ten track album, but as two independent LP sides that each go Bob-Grant-Bob-Grant-Bob. With all the competition, each guy wanted his songs to be songs and thus “Too Far Down” and “No Promise Have I Made” were inflated a little bigger than they needed to be.
I could see a tightened up, three-minutes-or-less “Too Far Down” working wonderfully as an intro to “Hardly Getting Over It” (which, at over six minutes, is also too long). But since it was designed not to lead into “HGOI” but rather to end the A-side of the LP, they didn’t go that route. It’s a weakness that I think is exacerbated by the non-stop flow of the CD format.
The cello on “Too Far Down” is a nice touch, too. A total preview of what’s to come on Bob’s solo debut Workbook right there.
Mike: And it shows them moving even further away from hardcore
Jason: Other than Bob’s screaming on “Crystal,” there isn’t a thing onCAG that would have fit on Everything Falls Apart or Metal Circus.
Mike: Nothing. And in what…three years’ time?
Jason: Yeah. Three years but 50+ songs ago.
Mike: Just let that soak in…
Jason: Yeah, pretty much the only band that beats that output is the Beatles.
I also figured out what drives me away from “Hardly Getting Over It”: that weird, chiming effect on the guitars. It bothers me, and it’s right in front on the mix, which just wears me out by the time the song is over. The singing is also a bit subdued compared to “Too Far Down”…if you see him sing the song now, there’s definitely a lot more emotion there.
Mike: Yeah, I alluded to the emotional aspect earlier. That is a song I can easily see him singing in his late 30s and 40s because of the lyrical content….not when he was 25/26.
Jason: Yeah, there’s a reason why “Hardly Getting Over It” is one of the songs that still has a home in Bob concerts to this day. The theme of fear of death is one that hits you at any age, and only intensifies over time.
What I found an interesting counterpoint was an observation in Bob’s autobio about how he had basically successfully avoided ever having to deal with anyone close to him dying until the suicide of Hüsker Dü manager David Savoy. But that happened after CAG was released. Which makes you wonder what put him in the frame of mind to write the song, especially considering his age on top of that.
Mike: Hmm. Maybe the stress of relentless touring, his alcohol and drug abuse at the time, or the stress of being a closeted man in a not so friendly musical field had him feeling his own mortality?
Jason: Entirely possible. And sometimes inspiration just hits, regardless of age. I mean, how the hell did Paul McCartney write “Yesterday” at age 23?
Mike: Good point. When it comes, it comes.
Jason: The more I think about the album, I really think a shortened “Too Far Down” that blends together more with “Hardly Getting Over It” as a pair of songs would have changed the entire tenor of the album. Have that pair of epic downers wrap up side A, then you flip the record over and that beautiful big pop opening to “Dead Set for Destruction” kicks side B to life.
Mike: Song placement really and sadly is kind of a lost art now because you don’t have to worry about flipping an LP over any longer.
Jason: Well, it’s a different art with the CD, but it’s very important…more important than a lot of artists consider. Sloan, for example, does wonders with track sequencing on their albums.
Mike: Anything else you want to add to CAG before we move onto the behemoth that is Warehouse?
Jason: Yeah, I still have beefs with “Eiffel Tower High” to get out there! :-P
Mike: [laughs]
Jason: I figured out what’s broken with that song, too. The first thing is the vocals. Bob’s vocals are double-tracked the entire time, with one energetic voice and one sleepy voice singing slightly out of time with each other. Nothing against double-tracking in general, but it’s an effect best used sparingly, and doing the entire song that way is off-putting.
Second is the song structure: the song is half chorus. And I don’t mean “Man, he sings the chorus a lot,” I mean that the first 1:20 of the song is the first two verses and the next 1:10 is just Bob and Grant singing “And I scream ‘Merry Eiffel Tower Hi-ee-igh’!” over and over and over and over and over again.
Mike: Yeah, that is a bit annoying
Jason: It’s a good hook! I like it! I get it stuck in my head all the time! But it’s just too much! Why he went verse-verse-chorus-chorus-chorus-chorus-chorus instead of verse-chorus-verse-chorus I don’t know. Again, maybe it was trying to beef up a sketch of a song into a full song, but it’s another track here that I would shorten.
Jason: CAG is only 37 minutes long, making it one of the band’ shorter LPs, but I think it could have been made a lot stronger by tightening up “Too Far Down” and “Eiffel Tower High” and then adding a couple of tracks.
Or again, to go back to my Hüsker Dü fantasy draft, imagine those songs as punchy interludes mixed in with tracks from Flip Your Wig. What an album that would have been.
Mike: That was going to be my next comment actually!
Jason: All right, I think I’ve qualified my C grade enough. On to Warehouse!

 

Tune in tomorrow for a look at Hüsker Dü’s double album swan song, 1987’s Warehouse: Song and Stories.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply