On First Listen
Husker Du

on First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.

Let me start with a major accolade: I can imagine these albums, if I'd heard them years ago, significantly shifting the course of my musical life. Back when I was primarily focused on finding something harder and faster and louder and fuzzier Zen Arcade would have blown my fucking mind, because I simply wouldn't have believed you could get that effect not by extremity but instead by intelligence and determination. As it is, my first listen to New Day Rising was depressing and tiring for more than one reason, although the overarching one might best be summoned up by saying this: That ship sailed when I was seventeen and started listening instead to bands which would lead me to where I am now, where hard and fast and loud and fuzzy are occasional diversions, not the staples of my musical diet.

Of course, one of the sapping things about that first listen was just imagining the kind of response my reaction was going to get. So let's reiterate, just in case you skipped over the preamble up above: this is not me passing judgment on your favorite band. It's not me claiming that I mostly lost interest in the kind of thing Hüsker Dü did so well in my late teens means that anyone who liked them or likes them is somehow immature or lacking. My response to the band is not, when you get right down to it, about you.

We have On Second Thought if I really believed Hüsker Dü sucked and wanted to try and correct the historical record. This column is about things we haven't heard that we “should” have, and why we haven't, and what kind of picture we've formed in the interim, and what happens when we sit down with the records. In this case the band was actually the closest to my mental conception of them, thanks to my purchase of Sugar's Beaster EP and reading about them on allmusic and in Our Band Could Change Your Life. I expected when I put on New Day Rising something kind of like Beaster but rougher, more fragmented, more direct, and so on. But I also, with my teenage self lurking unnoticed in the back of my self-opinion, thought I'd love it.

In practice as opposed to in reasoned, rational reflection, I didn't like New Day Rising at all. “Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” was pretty catchy, but most of the record just blurs together in my mind. It does exactly what I believed it would, but it turns out that's not really what I want to listen to. I'm still kind of stuck in the mode of listening I picked up as a kid, sitting there with the sleeve to whatever record was on my dad's turntable: Even from a first listen I want to be able to pick out each song, and here I mostly can't. The jaunty-but-loud “Books About UFOs” made my ears perk up, not because it was good so much as it was different, but when it ends and they launch into “I Don't Know What You're Talking About” I just wanted to sigh.

I tend to want music to either be emotionally significant via lyrics and so on or else noisy and abstract, and New Day Rising hit this weird middle ground where it didn't really scratch either itch. More than anything else it reminded me of my first go through with the Wrens' Secaucus, only without the latter's comparatively giant-sized hooks. Did I respect that music? Absolutely. But there's nothing there to make me want to go back, except for maybe “Books About UFOs.” Grant Hart at least seemed to be hitting some of the targets I wanted them to. I queued up Zen Arcade with a heavy heart.

And was pleasantly surprised. Much of the first stretch of the album is the same experience for me as New Day Rising (and I went back to both many times over the week I've been working on this to make sure it wasn't just a matter of slowly acquiring a taste for their music), and while “Never Talking to You Again” marked a departure it seemed like a banal one. But with track ten, “I'll Never Forget You,” things suddenly clicked into place. Bob Mould sounded as if something was actually at stake rather than just yelling for the sake of it, and the hook struck me immediately; the others so far had been buried too deep or seemed too banal to really keep my attention. And, miracle of miracles, it wasn't a one-off. The rest of the record followed with few duds.

As opposed to the impressively focused New Day Rising, Zen Arcade had impressive dynamic and emotional range without ever really deviating from the distortion-and-screaming template. By the time of the massive “Reoccuring Dreams” I was fully ready to give the record the kind of praise it is accustomed to. “Turn on the News” actually had me singing along the first time. I began to step back a bit from my pessimistic “well, I guess I just don't like rock anymore” conclusion that the earlier record had led me to. I still wish Zen Arcade had trimmed itself to single album length, but there's a full 50 minutes there I find compelling, which is a huge leap over its successor.

I had trouble getting my hands on much of the band's oeuvre, so the last major mountain to tackle, reaching me after I'd been over those two albums many times, was a full half of the band's swan song double album Warehouse: Songs and Stories. It was even more revelatory. If I was initially disappointed that Pere Ubu 'just' played rock music, hearing Hüsker Dü doing the same thing was the first time I really got close to Mould and Hart as songwriters. There are bands where a thick coat of distortion is my favorite thing about them, but it turns out these guys are not one of them. Mould's guitar is still fierce, but secondary, and a song like “Back from Somewhere” made me go scrambling back to New Day Rising to figure out why I loved one and not the other. Had I missed something? As far as I can tell I didn't, but it's telling that such small shifts here were the difference between love and apathy.

To round off my listening I had an oddly matched set of tracks, “Diane” from the early Metal Circus EP and “Makes No Sense at All” from the late period Flip Your Wig. I heard the latter described as the closest the band got to a power ballad, and between that and the fact it was from back when their production still made my ears glaze over, I can't say I was surprised at my lack of enthusiasm. The latter is a stunner, though, a hybrid between what they'd accomplish on (half of) Warehouse and Zen Arcade and easily one of the catchiest Hüsker Dü songs I've heard. If it's any indication, Flip Your Wig along with Warehouse has the potential to become a favorite of mine.

What's so weird about the band's work, however, is that I can see where this would have potentially taken me if I'd fallen into Hüsker Dü instead of, say, Spiritualized in high school, if I'd spent hours with “Reoccurring Dream” on repeat instead of “Broken Heart.” I don't think our tastes are inevitable and inviolate expressions of our personalities; like everything else, they are partially shaped by context. Zen Arcade and even New Day Rising are uncompromising and fiercely intelligent enough that had I run into them back in the day I probably would have stuck with the loud and fast as the primary kind of music I sought out much longer, maybe permanently, and it's doubly disappointing to find that you no longer have as much tolerance for it. Meanwhile, back then I would have rejected Warehouse and maybe even “Makes No Sense at All” as too polished in comparison. These days I've come to accept that as someone who came of age in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s polish isn't exactly something I'm new to or even find objectionable, which means that I find “Ice Cold Ice” as much fun as “What's Going On.” You can't go home again, but it's comforting to find that my tastes haven't changed quite as much as New Day Rising made me fear they had.

Listened to
New Day Rising
Zen Arcade
Tracks 3-12 of Warehouse: Songs and Stories
“Makes No Sense at All”

By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2007-06-27
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