Album: Zen Arcade
Artist: Hüsker Dü
Released: July 1st, 1984
Highlights: Something I Learned Today, Never Talking to You Again, Pink Turns to Blue, Turn On the News
For a scene that was as much about music as it was about attitude and having freedom to express one’s ideas, the punk rock movement sure had a lot of unwritten rules that needed to be followed. This weird dichotomy between liberty and restrictions was present at the heart of the genre from day one, and anybody who dared to step out of pre-established expectations, be it by signing to a major label or by not playing songs that were loud and fast, was bound to be shunned by many. It is possible to argue such extremist thoughts were the natural result of a musical ideology that rose to combat, among many other ghosts, the artistic excess and elitist lifestyle of musicians of the 70s; therefore, keeping it all as pure as possible was important. Yet, there is something ironic about the fact that people who often sang against oppression and narrow-minded attitudes were so quick to establish a few guidelines themselves.
Whatever rules punk had, the hardcore movement – its American offspring – seemed to take them to a whole new level. If the Ramones played fast, Black Flag played faster. If the Sex Pistols had simple tunes, Minor Threat made them simpler. If Wire did not care about song structures, the Minutemen created a whole career out of the concept. And if The Clash, even after going into a major label, still did not bow down completely to capitalist practices, as evidenced by the fight the band put up to release the double “London Calling” and the triple “Sandinista” at normal prices, Fugazi simply never gave in to large corporations, going on to sell quite a whole lot of records solely via independent labels and distributors.
Still, in the midst of a scene with so much admirable ideological statements, there lies a monolith of ambition by the name of “Zen Arcade”. If both punk and hardcore pushed against excesses, then “Zen Arcade” is an offender in two senses. Firstly, it clocks in at seventy minutes, a length that takes it closer to the flashy psychedelic extravaganzas of the 70s than to standard hardcore albums, which tended to barely make it to half an hour. Secondly, as if such indulgence were not enough, the record commits the sin of being a concept work centered on the life of a young man who runs away from a toxic home; a nature which ties it to opera-making dinosaurs of the previous decades like The Who, with their “Tommy” as well as “Quadrophenia”, and Pink Floyd, of “Animals” and “The Wall”.
However, rather than attracting pitchforks and torches, “Zen Arcade” ended up being widely celebrated, and for good reason. Theoretically, this is an album that could be disastrous. Besides being a statement, the briefness of hardcore works was also a wise choice born out of the understanding that, for a genre so stylistically tight, putting too much into one package was a recipe for dullness. Yet, Hüsker Dü was far from being a run-of-the-mill hardcore group. Sure, they played fast; they sang furiously; they had little technique; their recordings were of famous low quality, even after they went big; and Bob Mould wielded a guitar tone of blistering deafening nature, playing a buzzsaw guitar that had seemingly been drowned in acid. But, as they had lightly shown in the material they put out before “Zen Arcade”, Hüsker Dü did not mind throwing some pop sugar into the wild racket.
Much to the benefit of the album, and as the main reason why its seventy minutes are not excessive, this is where the band’s signature melodic work becomes established. Bringing twelve solo compositions to the table, Mould is responsible for the more muscular anthemic tracks, those that rock furiously and invite the audience to shout along as the choruses get to their hooks. Drummer Grant Hart, meanwhile, is the sensitive core of the band; penning six tunes on his own, his tracks are ballads often disguised in hardcore presentation, and if his highly emotional lyrics are not enough to drive his explosive feelings home, his screaming without a care for formality is sure to do so. It is much due to the distinct personalities of its creative leaders and thanks to their consistency in finding good melodies that “Zen Arcade” escapes whatever stones someone was looking to throw towards it; and the alliance of these qualities with its bold artistic ambitions propels it to a classic status.
The strong melodic work is not the only reason why “Zen Arcade” manages to find stylistic variety, since Hüsker Dü also happens to take some unexpected detours throughout the album. “Never Talking to You Again” is an acoustic number whose frantic strumming does not let listeners forget the band’s hardcore origins. “Dreams Recurring” is a vicious instrumental piece played backwards. “Hare Krsna” is noisy and certainly punk, but its repetitive chants nod to psychedelia whilst replicating some bad acid trip. “Standing by the Sea” has some loud-and-quite dynamics, with Hart seemingly screaming in the middle of a cacophonous storm when the track explodes. Both “One Step at a Time” and “Monday Will Never Be the Same” are short piano interludes. “The Tooth Fairy and the Princess” is another cut that is played backwards, with the distinction being that it carries a dreamy atmosphere due to whispered vocals and jangly guitars. And “Reoccurring Dreams” is a fourteen-minute instrumental jam that, like an opera, keeps returning to the same catchy central theme repeatedly when the band takes a break from making a beautiful racket.
Surprisingly, most of these weird turns work, with the annoying “Hare Krsna” possibly being the sole exception. The backwards instrumentals are thematically appropriate to replicate the character’s dreams. The short piano pieces offer nice breathing room between the guitar attacks. “Never Talking to You Again” is among the album’s best tracks. “Standing by the Sea” is an unlikely successful theatrical and dramatic moment. And “Reoccurring Dreams” is a musical achievement: a long instrumental piece that never feels tired or indulgent. That does not mean, however, “Zen Arcade” is not dented in the slightest by its length. Although it begins flawlessly with four strong opening tunes in a row and closes mightily in the seven-song sequence between “Pink Turns to Blue” and “Reoccurring Dreams”, its mid section can drag a bit, because the weakest melodic moments of the album are all joined in this segment, giving birth to the most common downfall of hardcore groups: making sequences of songs that are too hard to distinguish from one another.
Despite that irregular portion, “Zen Arcade” has highs that more than make up for such stumble. “Something I Learned Today”, “Broken Heart, Broken Home”, and “Chartered Trips” would go on to serve as fantastic blueprints for future Bob Mould classic compositions that are equal part muscle and melody. “What’s Going On” has enough energy to outdo an atomic bomb. “Turn on the News” has an irresistible call-and-response chorus that urges the protagonist to return in order to face real life. And “Pink Turns to Blue”, which depicts the moving sad desperation in the witnessing of an overdose may as well be the best song produced by any band of the hardcore movement; a scene that took the punk spirit to sometimes shocking extremes, and that happened to find its finest hour in an album that went against many of the rules that first brought it to existence. Ironically or appropriately, “Zen Arcade” is the ultimate hardcore classic.