Sunday, March 22, 2009
Released in July 1984 on SST Records, Zen Arcade won instant critical praise for its blend of hardcore, enduring melodies and boundary pushing aesthetic. In other words, this was not your older brother's hardcore - far from it. Easily the most important record from Husker Du, many people rightfully call it a visionary work which would, seven years ahead of its time, lead to the commercial predominance of power pop and so-called alternative music (remember MTV's 120 minutes, then later the more mass marketed 'buzz' video selections?) Between their formation in 1979 and breakup in 1987, Husker Du's work essentially paved the way for everyone that followed, from the Pixies to Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr to the Gin Blossoms.
I'll always look at Husker Du as one of those rare personal discoveries, not something recomended by friends or my musical mentor, older brother extraordinaire Michael Manekin. As I recall, I was thumbing through a copy of Alternative Press, reading a Bob Mould interview as he must have been promoting the debut album from his second band, Sugar. I think I was 13 or so at the time. Shortly thereafter, I purchased a copy of Husker Du's last album, Warehouse: Songs and Stories, and from there would buy each of their other studio records.
Zen Arcade is an important record. Clocking in at over 70 minutes, the double LP is ambitious in length alone, in a time when most albums were significantly shorter than they are now. There are standard two minute hardcore tunes, proto indie rock pop songs, a solo acoutic guitar and vocals song, as well as a whole lot of distorted, fuzzed out guitar, feedback and tape loops. It adds up to quite a powerful listening experience, one where I often times have a tough time sitting still and listening; the record has always caused me to get up and walk around, or in the case of yesterday's listening during Grant Hart's brilliant, intensely melodic 'Somewhere,' literally get up and take a break from listening. The melodies in songs like 'Broken Home, Broken Heart', 'Chartered Trips' and 'Whatever' seem to be hard-wired in my brain and are unforgettable.
A concept album, Zen Arcade touches on themes such as disillusionment, failed relationships and an inability to live a fulfilling, stable life. Though I paid little attention to the lyrics when I first discovered the record (not a huge loss, as one of the album's flaws is the poor, low level recording of vocals). What I was focusing on more was Bob Mould's disturbed growl, Grant Hart's anguished yells, Greg Norton's impressively steady and accurate (even at supercharged tempo) bass playing, and plenty of Mould's punk meets rockabilly guitar heroics. In between there was the high pitched repetitive calls in 'Hare Krishna,' the slow, spooky, churning tape loop driven 'Tooth Fairy & the Princess" as well as the album's closer, the fourteen minute avant jazz inflected opus 'Reoccurring Dreams.' Once again, not just another hardcore record.
Zen Arcade shows what can happen when a talented, dedicated band masters their chosen genre and reaches outside of it, in this case laying the foundation for a completely new style of music to come.
Oh, I highly recommend that you check out long-time Rolling Stone correspondent David Fricke's review from February 1985. He pretty much nails it.