Husker Du Series Part 6: Zen Arcade and Eight Miles High
Ten out of Ten
1 . Something I Learned Today 2. Broken Home, Broken Heart 3. Never Talking to You Again 4. Chartered Trips 5. Dreams Reoccurring 6. Indecision Time 7. Hare Krishna 8. Beyond the Threshold 9. Pride 10. I”ll Never Forget You 11. The Biggest Lie 12. What’s Going On 13. Masochism World 14. Standing by the Sea 15. Somewhere 16. One Step at a Time 17 Pink Turns to Blue 18. Newest Industry 19. Monday Will Never Be the Same 20. Whatever. 21. The Tooth Fairy and the Princess 22. Turn On The News 23. Reoccurring Dreams
Many bands work slowly over a period of years and develop their skills. They work hard at their craft and eventually become fully confident. At a certain point, any band worth a damn will eventually create a “masterpiece” that matches great musicianship, meaningful songwriting, great arrangements, careful production and immaculate singing. Often, these works are done by accident: a band is simply working at the top of their game and create a great work.
However, some bands often try to force a masterpiece when they are at the top of their game. Brian Wilson created three masterpiece records (to this reviewer) prior to “Pet Sounds”: “All Summer Long,” “Today!” and “ Summer Days (And Summer Nights!)” These were created by a composer at the top of his game, trying his best to make great product. Brian then, of course, “forced” “Pet Sounds” into being. The gamble worked and it is now considered one of, if not the best albums ever recorded.
“The Who” did a similar thing in the late 60’s. Somewhat tossed off albums and singles, such as “The Who Sell Out” and “Happy Jack” were masterpieces of rock and roll songwriting. Townshend was at the top of his game with “Sell Out” and then went on to “force” his next masterpiece, “Tommy.” This album simultaneously created the “rock opera” genre (with apologies to “The Pretty Things”) and made the band an overnight sensation.
However, forcing a masterpiece can result in problems. For example, Brian Wilson attempted to follow up “Pet Sounds” with “Smile.” He was forcing himself into completely new areas of composition, including suite like movements and massively intricate vocal harmonies. No rock composer had yet attempted something so ambitious and it fell flat. This failure was incredibly destructive to Wilson’s life and it took him most of the rest of his life to catch up with his failure.
Townshend also attempted to force a similarly ambitious album into the world with the “Lifehouse” album. Again, Townshend was attempting to integrate ideas that had never been tried, such as audience participation, synthesizer experimentation and feature length movies. Townshend, however, had the strength of character to scrap together “Who’s Next” an album that is considered by many to be their best. Townshend, of course, then forced “Quadrophenia” into being, an album that is also considered by many to be their best (but also considered to be one of their weakest by others).
There are many problems that cause these “forced” albums to struggle to come into life. The ambition of the project is often problematic enough. Who has the strength of character to see these things through? Often, it becomes nearly impossible and people begin to stall for time. This stalling often becomes the major stumbling point. Townshend and Wilson both began to fatigue of explaining their ideas to confused listeners and the projects fell through. Clearly, if something must be forced, it must be done quickly.
Husker Du had been progressing incredibly quickly throughout their career. Their musicianship was peaking, their songwriting was getting truly impressive and their ambitions began to grow. As a result, they wanted to “go beyond the whole idea of ‘punk rock’ or whatever” as described by Bob Mould. They began writing a flurry of songs that would all combine into a lengthy rock opera or concept album about a disenfranchised youth.
The new album would encompass musical forms never attempted in hardcore, such as folk, pop, piano tunes, psychedelic idea, jazz, metal and many others. However, this wasn’t a lazy genre exercise: instead, the band was attempting to integrate the forms of these musical forms into the form of hardcore . Many people balked at the idea and considered it impossible. The band was at a vital crossroad: they had to put out something great to immortalize their name or drift into irrelevancy.
And the band succeeded at “forcing” out their true masterpiece. How did the band succeed where others had failed in the past? They eliminated one of the biggest stumbling blocks of the past: the length of time it took to finish the album. Instead of fiddling about with concepts, holding band meetings and taking years to arrange everything, the band bashed the album out in a 40 hour recording session. Each song on the album, except two, was a first take. The band then took another 40 hours to mix the album. It cost $3,200 to create.
Incredibly, the album was recorded in the same month that “Metal Circus” was released. It was recorded only eight months after the recording sessions for “Metal Circus” had wrapped. These months found the band busy touring and promoting for the “Metal Circus” EP. How could the band punch out such an album in such a short time? Through sheer determination, talent, gall and well…with a little help of some drugs, especially speed.
A song by song description of the album would be maddening to read and write. In fact, it has what has put me off from writing about the album for so long. What could I say about it? It’s been examined a million times by a million writers and critics better and worse than myself. What more can I add to the discussion?
I will say that the album must be listened to in one sitting. With headphones. That’s right: put on the 23 song, 70 minute long album and sit down with eyes closed and listen. It’s okay if you have to get up and move around. The album is very fast, with quick beats and jack hammering guitar riffs. Punch the air if you got to: scream along with Bob and Grant. Listen to the words and feel them. This album is essential listening for intelligent and sensitive teenagers. However, it can still work for the grown up listener.
You also have to listen to it several times. The scope of the album is astonishing but it can almost seem like one never-ending blur of sound. Subsequent listens bring out details you had missed: the stark acoustic nature of “Never Talking to You Again”; the weird atmosphere of “Hare Krishna”; the passion of “I’ll Never Forget You” (talk about a prime love/break up song); the punchy riffs and catchy melodies of nearly ever song; the weird tossed off songs that somehow still seem like genius; the short piano interludes that let you relax and think; the never-ending but enthralling free jazz of “Reoccurring Dreams.”
Eventually, it will click in your brain and you will feel it. The rush of guitar distortion mixing with the “thumpity thump” of Grant Hart’s drums and the high pitched, precise bass rumble of Grant Norton (listen to “What’s Going On” to hear where Billy Corgan got the idea for the bass part and chord progression for “1979”) creates a stunning listening experience that simply has no analogy in the world of rock and roll. Yes, I wish they’d slow down sometimes. Yes, I wish the guitar tones were varied a little, that the production was clearer, that I could understand what the hell Bob was screaming most of the time. But sometimes, I just don’t give a damn about all of that.
Also, you simply cannot listen to this album without buying and absorbing the “Eight Mile High” single released after the album. The band deconstructs the Byrds transcendentally ethereal (and dissonant) song by focusing on pure speed, passion and vitality. I know people who think this is better than the Byrds version and its definitely a close call. Give in to the rush of a band working for 80 straight hours to force themselves into greatness.
The band would continue their rush of greatness into the decade but would never truly top this gargantuan effort. “New Day Rising” may be more consistent (and focused: after all, 23 songs is a lot to wade through) and “Warehouse: Songs and Stories” may be catchier and more diverse but to this reviewer, nothing else by the band compares to losing yourself to the rush of “Zen Arcade.”