Feb 24 2022

Album Review: Hüsker Dü – Zen Arcade (#MWE)

A hardcore rock opera? Sign me up. Midwest punks Hüsker Dü set the blueprint on fire with their second album in 1984 and decided instead to craft a concept album about a kid who leaves home, joins the military, dabbles in spirituality, finds love, gets his heart broken, and ultimately discovers the world kind of sucks (which, wow, that’s pretty much American Idiot in a nutshell).

The buzzsaw guitars and rapid-fire bass lines are all here; this is still most definitely a hardcore album from the 1980s. But underneath the surface is something more tuneful and melodic, and underneath that still is an earnest narrative about growing up and the realization of the harsh reality of life. Bob Mould and Grant Hart, not yet nemeses, brew up a fascinating pot of driving alt-rock noise, with dalliances in piano, psychedelia and even acoustic folk. These experiments were unheard of for a band of their ilk at the time, which is a testament to Zen Arcade’s influence on modern genre-hopping post-hardcore acts like Turnstile. The album sounds like it was quite a laborious undertaking, rendering the reality all the more impressive: the band recorded most songs in one take, and the whole thing was completed in about four days.

The band’s harmonies consistently hit the mark, as on acoustic rocker “Never Talking To You Again;” elsewhere, an in-reverse mindfuck interlude (“Dreams Reoccurring”) segues into the fast-tempo “Indecision Time.” We are treated to some far-out Bo Diddley action on “Hare Krishna,” while the band channels just a taste of 70s glam on “What’s Going On.”

The diversity of styles makes for an engaging listen, even if some moments fall flat, as on aggressive filler like “Pride” and “Masochism World” and the pointless psych excursion “The Tooth Fairy and the Princess.” However, critical moments in Zen Arcade’s timeline are also late-album highlights: the tuneful “Pink Turns To Blue” is the moment when our protagonist loses his romantic interest to a drug overdose, and the eternally prescient “Turn On the News” serves as a harrowing return to reality. By the time we realize the entire story was all a restless nightmare, the album closes with the 14-minute instrumental reprise “Reoccurring Dreams.”

Zen Arcade, originally a double album on vinyl, runs a little long, and some ideas don’t quite stick the landing, but the project is admirable because of its flaws, not in spite of them. Pardon the cliche, but the album is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Hüsker Dü swung for the fences and mostly hit it out of the park with this one, and the transformation was just beginning.

Score: 7/10