Zen Arcade

Hüsker Dü

album cover

A Roar from the American Rock Underground

A loose concept album about a runaway kid who encounters unpleasantness out in the unforgiving real world, Zen Arcade is among the most thrilling, musically radical documents to emerge from the American rock underground of the 1980s. A highly pressurized tour of the adolescent turmoils, it's got the requisite indie-rock elements, including rototilling guitars, and lacerating, possessed-by-demons backbeats and vocal wails so besieged that words seem superfluous.

Yet more than thrash attitude is on display here. The Minneapolis-based Hüsker Dü—guitarist and singer Bob Mould, drummer and singer Grant Hart, and bassist Greg Norton—developed a rare cohesion, an all-for-one ensemble attack that made the music sound larger than the sum of its parts.

These guys really play: Tucked inside some Zen Arcade tunes are outbreaks of lurching prog-rock fury, off-kilter guitar constructions, and blistering up-tempo slaloms far more intricate than most speedmetal. That's not to overlook the candy songwriters Mould and Hart (who usually wrote separately, and often fought about the band's direction) put there: A staggering number of the songs rely on honest-to-goodness hooks. These rarely occupy the prime spotlight—Mould's wall of dense lo-fi guitar sludge sits at the forefront—but they're there all the same, leavening the otherwise scalding "Indecision Time," bringing momentary sweetness to the timeless shrug "Whatever."

According to the liner notes, the twenty-three songs of Zen Arcade were recorded in a forty-five-hour frenzy of activity; the recording cost just $3,200. Many of the tunes are first takes, and while previous and future Hüsker Dü records contain mostly straightforward guitar-based rockers, this album has strange song fragments built on piano, haunted spacejam instrumentals, acoustic guitar ballads, and even blurry-sounding tape experiments. Not every one of these will make the Hüsker hall-of-fame reel, but some, including the bitterly acidic "Never Talking to You Again," deserve a spot. Like many of the strong moments here, "Never Talking" plays like a transcript of some contentious confrontation, a moment when the emotional temperature of a conversation suddenly escalates into the red zone. That's where Hüsker Dü likes to be—at the ragged edge, torn up and ready to rage but not so far gone that things lurch out of control.

Genre: Rock
Released: 1984, SST
Key Tracks: "Never Talking to You Again," "Something I Learned Today," "Indecision Time," "Pink Turns to Blue," "Turn On the News"
Catalog Choice: New Day Rising; Warehouse: Songs and Stories
Next Stop: Meat Puppets: Too High to Die
After That: The Replacements: Let It Be
Book Pages: 374–375

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#1 from DingoJoe - 02/24/2009 11:56

I wouldn’t argue with Zen Arcade being the most expansive or most influential Husker Du album, but I do think most newcomers to Husker Du would be better served by New Day Rising, or Warehouse, or even Flip Your Wig or Candy Apple Grey, or even all of them,  before listening to the album that kicked it all off.

From 1985-1987 They may have been the best band in America, just ahead of Sonic Youth, the Replacements, and REM.

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