These are my reviews of Hüsker Dü’s studio albums.
1983: Everything Falls Apart
I have never listened to this. But it’s really an EP, so…
1984: Zen Arcade (10/10)
I was introduced to this record as the birth of something new, whether you want to call that thing “emo” (and you shouldn’t) or “post hardcore” or what have you. I have since learned that this history of the genre was hardly accurate – Minutemen were making post hardcore music for some time before this record came out, even if their version of the genre sounds nothing like this version. It’s probably not quite as life-changing as was alleged in so many reviews I read before I ever even heard it.
But this record is still one of the foundational documents of post hardcore and everything that has come along with that supragenre. Moreover, the thing about Hüsker Dü is that they are better – or at least more conventional – songwriters than the Minutemen. So everyone remembers their music better (and more people have heard it). Moreover, Minutemen were kind of weird and uncategorizable from the get go whereas Hüsker Dü fit in with a scene. Yes, that makes the revisionist history all the more unfair to Minutemen, but it also makes what Hüsker Dü did seem somehow more daring. It’s like if the Beatles put out The White Album before Sgt. Pepper thereby upending the way everyone understood rock how bands were supposed to operate. (I write, of course, in relative terms here, with regard only to the hardcore scene, and not to rock music in general.)
Whether or not Minutemen were first, this is the record that said to a generation of bands that they could be inspired by hardcore without making hardcore. We’re still dealing with the consequences.
Hüsker Dü albums released in 1985:
New Day Rising (9/10)
The narrative I’ve heard about this record is that the band returns to their hardcore roots. I accepted that blindly the first few times I heard the record but I don’t believe that’s true any more.
While this record is more consistently “hardcore” in its traditional sense than Zen Arcade, it’s still nothing like traditional hardcore and the only reason it is not seen as a massive departure from hardcore is because Zen Arcade already existed.
In many ways New Day Rising is actually possibly a better record – for one thing the lack of ambition does make it more digestible and more approachable, and more concise obviously. (I don’t actually mean that, I’m just pointing out how I think people could like this more.) Mould and Hart have grown and they have found how they could clothe their more traditional (or more psychedelic) ideas in the clothing of hardcore to make it seem as though they are just performing more accessible hardcore.
Really, the only thing I can think of keeping this from the top of the list of the best alternative records of the 1980s is the existence of its predecessor which, were it not for the Minutemen existing, invented an entire new genre of music, of which this album is one of the foundational documents.
Flip Your Wig (8/10)
Time can really change perception, especially when it comes to cultural artifacts. I have read online abbout how this is one of Hüsker’s great albums, perhaps even their best. But I don’t hear it. I don’t know if that’s because I haven’t sat down and listened to New Day Rising recently or whether it’s because this is less the version of the band I like, or whether it’s time, but I don’t get it.
It’s true, the songs are catchier and poppier than the past – or, at least, more of the songs are poppier than in the past. Some of them are among the Dü’s best songs. I’m not sure that anywhere enough of them are for this record to be considered among the band’s best work, but the material is mostly pretty strong. As others have noted, their sheer amount of songs at this point is pretty staggering. They were just pumping them out at a rate I don’t think any other post hardcore band could compete with. (This band released 6 albums, two of which were doubles, in 4 years. And then broke up.)
The band is considerably less aggressive than on New Day Rising and, with the exception of the instrumentals, they are considerably less diverse than on Zen Arcade. (I mean, they’re less diverse in general, but the instrumentals make you feel as though maybe they’re not.) A lot of people think this is some kind of positive evolution. It’s certainly an evolution but I’m not 100% sure how entirely positive it is. Certainly records like this are more accessible than their earlier stuff and are likely more influential. You might argue this is one of the records that accounts for the idea that they invented (or very heavily inspired the invention of) emo. But, on a personal level, I just prefer the louder, weirder, super ambitious version of the band.
I also don’t get how the production is “better”. To me, virtually every Hüsker Dü albums I’ve ever heard doesn’t sound very good. Does this sound better than the earlier records with actual producers? Really? I don’t hear it. Maybe it’s because I haven’t listened to the earlier SST albums recently but if it’s better sounding it’s marginally better sounding.
And the sequencing is not great – why put the instrumentals at the end? I don’t understand why you would do that. Many people get bored by instrumentals. (Not me, but many people do.)
I know this sounds like a pan and it really, really isn’t. One of the great bands of their era took a left-turn likely to alienate some of their fans and they basically succeeded at it. The problem I have with the record is more its reputation than the record itself. I wish it sounded better but I wish all Hüsker Dü records sounded better. Otherwise, it’s one of the most important bands of the 1980s doing their thing and doing it well. I just prefer the earlier, louder, weirder version of that band.
1986: Candy Apple Grey (7/10)
This is the last of the classic (i.e. everything but their debut) Hüsker Dü albums I’ve listened to. And, not coincidentally, it seems to be the least well regarded. (I regularly start with bands’ best regarded albums.)
At this point both Mould and Hart are fully developed songwriters, and arguably they’ve been that way for a little bit. But it’s pretty clear, to me at least, that the best songs these guys wrote for this band came closer to the end of their career together. They got better at the “craft” so to speak. This is both a good thing and a bad thing, in part because one of the things that’s so appealing about Hüsker Dü is their willingness to take risks within the prism of hardcore. But, of course, by this point, that’s kind of over.
I think the reason this and Warehouse are disliked by some fans as much as they are is that it certainly feels like the band have lost their edge, at least some of the time. (Though, to me, something like “Crystal” sure doesn’t sound like that.) At this point they’ve settled into something much closer to “alternative” or “emo” than their earlier post hardcore madness. One thing that’s interesting to think about is what this music would sound like had it not been so influential – like if we weren’t subjected to emo for the last 30 years, would these ballads sound less cliche?
As with basically every Hüsker Dü album, the sound kind of sucks. I have no idea what the issue is from a technical standpoint, but a remastering project that resurrected the full power of this band on record would be something to attempt. Now, I suspect it would have been done already if it was possible so it seems we’re stuck with one of the most significant American bands of the ’80s sounding shitty in perpetuity.
Warehouse was, for some reason the first or second Dü record I ever heard and certainly the first I owned. So I have a fondness for it that I can’t get over. Also, I find its ambition – far less ambitious than Zen Arcade of course – a little more appealing than the restraint of this and Flip Your Wig. And I also think that it’s probably a better set of songs. So I think I’m ready to say that this is the least of the classic Dü records. It’s still good, production aside, and it’s certainly just another feather in their cap for their claims to preeminence in ’80s American alternative rock. But it’s the least essential record they made since their debut, I think. (I say this authoritatively though I have never heard their debut. So that’s something.)
Warehouse: Songs and Stories (9/10)
If Zen Arcade is the White Album of Hardcore, this record is the hardcore equivalent of what it would have been like if Plastic Ono Band and McCartney had been released as a double album, with their sequencing mixed together.
The production is kind of awful (as usual) and they’ve stopped being their innovative selves, but I still really love this song selection (even if it’s the birth of emo…ugh). Probably my favourite album of theirs even if it is far from their best.