Sunday, June 14, 2009

Husker Du - Zen Arcade

First off, thanks a million for reading this blog. I dunno how often I'll be updating it and so on, but will do my best. :) Right, here's a review I did for my college course this year on Husker Du's classic concept album, Zen Arcade.

Band: Husker Du

Album: Zen Arcade

Label: SST Records, 1984

Producer: "Spot", Husker Du

Genre: Rock, Punk, Hardcore, Pop

By the 1980s, the socio-political and musical movement of punk had been entirely commercialised and assimilated into the mainstream. The media-savvy like of the Sex Pistols, and other UK punk bands bent on playing up to a mass-media stereotype, opened the floodgates for thousands of copycat bands to don the uniform and get their piece of the pie. But punk's real meanings - social protest, the raising of awareness of the issues, creative freedom and the abolition of establishment - while debased by commercialisation in Europe, were still truly taken at face value in America, where Ronald Reagan's rule was stifling society, and the mainstream's idea of cutting-edge music was Grand Funk Railroad and their peers. In response to the stifling knownothingism of "Morning in America", and the excess of rock 'n' roll, there slowly came together a shadow network of independent artists, labels, distributors, magazines & fan publications, booking agents, venues and fans, who formed an underground system of their own, free of, and unharmed by, the grip of popular culture, at least until Nirvana's success in the early 1990s shone a light on its activities. Many of this era's bands rightly take their places in the pantheon of rock legend: Rastafarian speed-punks Bad Brains, the down-to-earth Minor Threat, and folk-inflected proto-grungers The Replacements, amongst so many greats. But one band stands to mind more than any: Husker Du.

Hailing from Minneapolis, Minnesota, the trio of Bob Mould (guitar, vocals), Grant Hart (drums, vocals) and Greg Norton (bass) came together in 1979, under the common influence of punk godfathers The Ramones, and quickly earned a name locally for their locomotive-paced live show and bracingly intense music, heralding an evolution in punk's history: introducing escape-velocity speed to an already abrasive and confrontational sound. Releasing two singles, Statues/Amusement and In a Free Land, and an album, Everything Falls Apart, Husker Du caught the attention of discerning music fans by welding hardcore punk's power to everyday life: "music you could hang your heart on", according to author Michael Azerrad. Indie giant SST took notice and signed them, issuing live bullet Land Speed Record and Metal Circus, an E.P. which hinted at a less frustrated-sounding Husker Du: the murder ballad Diane even had a big sing-along chorus. Through incessant touring and a steady stream of quality creative output, Husker Du had firmly placed themselves on the map of punk in America. What came next would place them on the map of history.

Zen Arcade was the album that broke all the rules that punk had secretly adhered to, and publicly abhorred: whereas punk had pigeonholed itself into short, sharp blasts of noise, the Minneapolitans wove pop and folk influences into the already powerful sound. Hardcore punk in particular favoured brevity, and while this was the case with some of its songs, the album finishes with a 14-minute improvised instrumental; the simplicity that punk had treasured overtaken by psychedelia and experimentation. Even its double-12"-vinyl format raised the ire of purists, usually being the premise of prog-rock dinosaurs. It wasn't so much a departure from hardcore punk, as the genre's evolution itself, replete with piano interludes.

A concept album, possibly the first concept work in the punk bubble, Zen Arcade is the story of a boy running away from home. The strident snares that open the album in Something I Learned Today make a marching beat, representing the routine and helpless of everyday life that the boy tries desperately to escape. Realising his useless friends and squabbling family have no interest in his problems, he leaves home, ventures into the city and experiences life as an adult for the first time: he considers religion, gets involved in drugs, falls in love and is torn apart by grief when his lover dies of an overdose. It is only through introspection and painful soul-searching that he returns to the relative comfort of home: an embittered, introverted, grieving young man. Bleak? Perhaps. The story that ties Zen Arcade together is a tragedy, but one that brings the listener on an unforgettable sonic and emotional rollercoaster, encompassing love, humour, wonder, complacency, rebellion, and even a sliver of hope, all tied together with defining social commentary and an autobiographical aspect rarely seen in punk past or present.

Broken Home, Broken Heart and Chartered Trips, with their duality of pop and velocity, perfectly encapsulate at once where Husker had been, and were going, showcasing Mould's song writing skills and ability with hooks. This duality splits along the album, with Mould's bristling growls and breakneck guitar issuing terrifyingly intense hardcore missives such as I'll Never Forget You, Beyond the Threshold and Pride with authority, though nestling nicely with pop bijous like Never Talking to You Again, Pink Turns to Blue and Standing by the Sea. However, the loud/quiet dynamic isn't the only aspect to the album: experimentation and the feel of a cinematic piece are key, as trippy psychedelia (The Tooth Fairy and the Princess) leads to bold improvisation (Reoccurring Dreams/Dreams Reoccurring), all the while peppered with jaunty piano here and there, particularly the powerful interludes One Step at a Time and Monday Will Never Be the Same. Raucous old time rock 'n' roll is graciously nodded to: 50s standard I Want Candy is warped by a cult in Hare Krsna, and Hart's final salvo in the album, Turn on the News, is a raw, soulful masterpiece, almost a nightmarish realisation of a fantasy clash of Motown and metal.

Musically, Zen Arcade is an insanely beautiful tour-de-force that will never leave you once you let it in. But even more so, Zen Arcade hit a nerve with people because of its story, shining a mirror on the desolate state of Middle America in the 1980s, and in light of the band's upbringings, autobiographical: "I'm not the son you wanted, but what could you expect?/I made my world of happiness to combat your neglect" is an iconic couplet in Mould's Whatever, and can also be seen as an attack on parental disappointment in their children's homosexuality (both Mould and Hart were gay). The confusion, wonderment and bitterness felt by our protagonist could be that of any of the millions of people to have been touched by this work. It is this universal appeal that makes it a favourite to new generations, nearly twenty-five years later.

Though Husker Du would later find greater critical plaudits with subsequent albums New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig, and later sign to Warner Bros. before splitting up in 1988, Zen Arcade was more than a band finding its niche. It marked a whole movement being forced to move forward. Sales-wise, it was the great phenomenon of independent music in the 1980s, consistently in short supply for nearly a year due to SST's limited budget. But artistically, it was a titanic shift for a generation. Anything else after it for a while seemed pale and retrograde. Its anger transcended hardcore's macho posturing, and influenced a whole wave of punk bands to belt at their guitars with precision and fury. Its melodic prowess inspired the currently-fading phenomenon of pop-punk. Indeed, everyone from Green Day to underground icons Therapy? have cited them as influences.

In closing, Zen Arcade is essential listening, whether as a quality record for a new generation of fans, the defining document of an entire movement for veterans, or as a historical entry for those interested in the development of modern-day music. Those disaffected by today's bog-standard punk posers need this album. Those in search of a cathartic, inspiring experience need this album. The heck with it, if you are a rock fan, a music fan or even a currently existing human being, you need this album. And that isn’t hyperbole, or the ravings of some random fanboy. It’s the truth. It’s that important.

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