Hüsker Dü formed when I was born and released Zen Arcade when I was barely a smidgen of the music junkie I was to become. It took a phase of dad rock (literally whatever my pop listened to) followed by a phase of MTV-informed pop, then a hair metal stint, followed by a phase of industrial and alternative rock, before I was turned onto Zen Arcade in high school. It was a friend's cool older brother that tipped me to it, and it's stuck with me to this day. I've grown to listen to a wide array of music, but, in a way, little has changed in what I respond to. Raw emotion and hard rock still gets me psyched about life. The noisier the better, and boy is Zen Arcade noisy. It's still one of the most potent things I've ever heard, and continues to strike an emotional chord that’s as adult as it is adolescent. It's like one long, exasperated, bitter swallow of everything that pushes you to utter despair. When listening to it, the thought of intellectualizing or critiquing the songs feels mind-numbingly anti-climactic. So I figure I’ll just have to rant here.
There was something of that Nine Inch Nails-type lashing out that hooked me to songs like "Never Talking to You Again" and "I'll Never Forget You." You can bet there were folks in my high school days that fit those sentiments to a tee. But as much as there was that sort of run-of-the-mill teenage catharsis, there was an earnestness and urgency to the raw production and rabid playing that made NIN and Smashing Pumpkins seem flat by comparison. Admittedly, I never could stand the noisy sprawl of "Reoccurring Dreams" for too long, yet I could see how perfect it worked as a finale. Now it's my favorite part of the record by far, though nearly every song on here is a classic in the truest sense. Take away the context the band is placed in, and what you have is a miraculous recording more than worthy of one of those classic album docs they do for releases like The Joshua Tree and Transformer. A lot of these songs could - and should - be played on a classic rock station. Zen Arcade is more than just a punk rock staple; it's a solid, infectious and perfectly coalescing collection of songs. I sensed this at seventeen and I know this to be true today.
Bob Mould, as a performer, does that half-singing, half-howling style better than anyone. Every line is belted out as though he were singing while teetering on a cliff edge. It's so simultaneously bracing and heart-rending that a punk novice like myself couldn't help but be taken in by the messy, early-hardcore template they work from. I'm still no punk/hardcore aficionado, but I'll take Zen Arcade over the more pop-embracing Bob Mould or Sugar records any day. It's still that perfect balance of pure pop and utter dissonance that moves me more than anything else, and this album is one of the pinnacles of that type of melding. Though it's as much in the variation from track to track as it is within a given tune, there are plenty of smart, fist-pumpingly great hooks mixed in with the seeming reckless abandon of the performances. The experience is one of becoming at home with indelible songs, as well as feeling like you're mercilessly being slapped around by your inner demons. The record's not comfy, but it's definitely inviting.
What's interesting about this album, upon reflection, is how much of it is just dumb hard rock tropes revitalized. Many of the choruses are as rote as can be, and the lyrics are ridiculously direct. "Standing by the Sea" is as much a flailing, impassioned instant classic (check the urgent bass line) as it is cornball high school poetry. "Hare Krishna" is a goofy, messing around in the studio idea made gripping by sheer cacophony. On "Somewhere," the heroic guitar line takes the banal lyrics, "there's happiness instead of pain" and "dirt is washed out with the rain" and casts them in iron. Heart-on-your-sleeve is rarely this unassailable. It's such a tricky thing that when it works you almost don't want to analyze for fear of upsetting the translation from speakers to the ears to the brain. Fickle folks could poke a million holes in this album, but in the end it still moves people more than it inspires derision. It's just what the doctor ordered when it comes to rock music that’s as endearing as it is fun. I've read a lot of online comments calling Zen Arcade impenetrable and something that cred-seekers cite but never listen to. Without going into this too deeply (we're talking internet comment blurbs here) I'd like to reiterate that this is an immensely enjoyable album. It's one to blast at high volume and air guitar around the room to. It's like Kiss anthems for people who don't like Kiss. And it's nicely filled out with heady interludes (okay, so the tepid piano instrumental "Monday Will Never Be The Same" may be kinda weak -- at least it's short) to keep things from getting too overwhelming.
This is a record for everyone who loves rock music - not just punk rock elitists - so readers new to this band should take note. With any luck Hüsker Dü will follow suit with other great independent acts of the eighties and reunite for at least a show or two. This album alone (along with Everything Falls Apart, New Day Rising and the Metal Circus EP) shows a band well suited to a continued life outside of their heyday. If not, at least we've got this material to keep us tuned in to how a formula rooted in simplicity can translate into timelessness.