The tale is of a young man coming of age and facing, for the first time, the harsh circumstances surrounding his life. Feeling helpless to positively affect his abusive home life he resolves to run away, abandoning the emotional wreckage of his past in favor of a new life. On his own he quickly discovers that the outside world is not the warm and welcoming environment his youthful naivete had foreseen, but rather a cold and indifferent urban wasteland filled with specious comforts and perfidious companions. Far from achieving a paragon of success he realizes that indecision and insecurity are inextricable components of the human experience. Unable to reconcile his past, and struggling with growing regrets, his optimism is replaced with cynicism. This situation is further exacerbated by the drug induced death of his girlfriend. Then, after reaching the epitome of self-deprecating despondence, our main character awakens. His harrowing journey has been nothing more than a dream and he is left to contemplate the challenges of being a contributing and loving individual in a detached and hostile world.
This story reads like a post-modern novel exploring the growing alienated isolationism and the burden of optimism individuals face when attempting to navigate a path of goodness through the mechanics of a super-industrialized and thoughtlessly consumptive society. That this is the plot of a concept album titled “Zen Arcade” by the band Husker Du may not appear particularly striking, but noting that it is the focus of a double album by a band with roots deeply embedded in the early 80’s hardcore punk counterculture is practically stupefying. Hardcore, that bastion of youthful moral superiority, 50 second long songs, and unabashed musical inability, had never seen anything so ambitious. At the time of its release Zen Arcade was a breath of fresh air for a scene that had, in the name of nonconformity, developed a rigid and dogmatic doctrine governing the acceptable behaviors, appearances, and expressions of its participants.
In 1983 Husker Du, a hardcore band from the twin cities, began to explore melody while simultaneously experiencing a constantly expanding fan base. The band had just released their first record for Black Flag’s notorious label SST when they returned to California to lay out two dozen or so tracks for their most inspired and melodic release to date. Zen Arcade was recorded and mixed in a mere 85 hours with all but two of the recordings being first takes. The idea that a punk band could dare anything so indulgent as a double album concept record so impressed labelmates The Minutemen that Mike Watt and D. Boon furiously doubled the material they had prepared for their forthcoming album “Double Nickels on the Dime”.
Zen Arcade opens with the anthemic “Something I Learned Today” establishing not only the furious rage that is to characterize much of the albums tempo but also the interplay between Grant Hart & Bob Mould’s vocal stylings. While Mould clearly favors the forcible expulsion of his lyrics at top volume (“Indecision Time”) Hart offers a melodic and subdued vocal backdrop. Songs, such as “I’m Never Talking to You Again” , showcase the musical range of the band opting for slow moments of deliberation breaking up the maelstrom. The unrestrained exploratory nature of this record is typified in the final song from side A, “Hare Krsna” , where Hart occasionally chants the song title (borrowing the melody from the 1960’s pop standard “I Want Candy”) , over a frenetic psychedelic jam. Never coming in on a dull note, side B opens with the raging “Beyond the Threshold”. The fervid growl of Bob Mould couple with Harts’ exigent drumming style throughout a handful of short songs executed with such confidence it’s almost hard to notice when one track ends and the next begins. “The Biggest Lie” continues this streak, however, as Hart melodically responds to Moulds calls a more typical pop aesthetic emerges suggesting the college rock sound that would become more apparent in the bands later releases. The chaos and rage in these songs readily lend credibility to the story the songwriters are attempting to document. The uncertainty and pain the narrator experiences are exposed in the abrasive anger of songs explicated with unbridled intensity, but which end before the listener can easily wrap their head around what is going on. The encapsulation of such confusion is, fortunately, not the only trick Husker has up their sleeves. The introspection in the lyrics of “Standing by the Sea” and the sentimentality of the instrumental track “One Step at a Time” exhibit a softer, sadder side of the band that is, at times, overshadowed by the racing urgent structure of many of the songs. The precision of the drumming on the song “Whatever” earmarks Hart as being a force to reckon with, and, the fact that these tracks were recorded in one take impresses upon the listener the well rehearsed and hard working nature of the band. “Turn on the News” is perhaps the most accessible and radio friendly song on the entire album (so much so that it earned Husker Du the attention of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). Furthermore, it serves as a powerful, hard-hitting summation of the story the band spent the album exploring. The album ends with the fifteen minute long psychedelic jamout “Recurring Dreams”. That they chose to close the album in this manner is fitting. It serves as a representation of the inherently indulgent nature of the entire project. It’s as if the members of Husker Du are acknowledging their participation in that most obviously excessive act of rock and roll ostentation: The release of a double concept album. The sheer audacity of this record served, in some ways, a disservice to the group as it stood as the standard of comparison for everything they would later release. Over the course of their next several albums Husker Du would drift further from the hardcore scene in favor of songs with more traditional song structures and catchier pop hooks. Though never quite achieving commercial success, the forceful ambition and the raw tenacity of this early release continue to prove influential.