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Husker Du’s ‘Zen Arcade’: 30 Years Later

Was there ever a better year for music than 1984? OK, maybe if you were born sometime in the early to mid ’50s, you can claim 1967 or 1968. And we get that. Beatles, Hendrix, Dylan, Stones, etc.

But to anyone raised on rock music after the ’60s died out, no year was as consistent, or as consistently great, as 1984. Even the year’s two commercial behemoths — Prince‘s ‘Purple Rain’ and Bruce Springsteen‘s ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ — are classics, among the best albums these artists made, as well as among the all-time greatest. Period.

But let’s take a quick look at albums celebrating their 30th anniversaries this year: Cyndi Lauper’s ‘She’s So Unusual.’ Los Lobos’ ‘How Will the Wolf Survive?’ The Minutemen’s ‘Double Nickels on the Dime.’ The Replacements‘ ‘Let It Be.’ Run-D.M.C.’s debut. The Smiths‘ debut. Even a Talking Heads live album ranks among their very best. All classics. All released in 1984.

Even the second-tier records of the bunch — like the Pretenders‘ ‘Learning to Crawl’ and R.E.M.‘s ‘Reckoning’ — are pretty much close to great, just a song or vision or two short of making the timeless list.

So yeah, ‘Electric Ladyland’ and the White Album and ‘Beggars Banquet’ and whatever else are great records. But 1984 seems to mean a whole lot more to us now. And one of the year’s most ambitious releases took its cue straight from the late ’60s.

Nobody was prepared for Husker Du‘s ‘Zen Arcade.’ It didn’t sound like any other album slapped with the “punk” tag. It didn’t even sound like any other music being made in 1984. And it sure as hell didn’t sound like the Minneapolis trio’s debut abum, ‘Everything Falls Apart,’ released the year before.

‘Zen Arcade’ was a double album released in an era when two-record sets were reserved for bloated and pointless live records or even more bloated and pointless “artistic statements” put out by artists with way too much creative freedom. Plus, it’s a concept album — the hoariest of ’70s music shackles.

But ‘Zen Arcade’ was different — a punk-based double album that wasn’t very punk at times. It wasn’t very focused either, moving from folk and pop to jazz and classic rock. There are even some piano interludes in there that nobody would ever be able to get away with at CBGB.

And that concept? Pretty much on par with every other concept album ever made. What was ‘Zen Arcade’ about? Ostensibly it tells the story of a kid who runs away from home only to find out that the big world out there blows even more. But good luck trying to put the pieces together among the album’s 23 songs.

Yet there lies the album’s greatest achievement. It bit off more than it could chew in a year when even the best LPs (Prince, Springsteen) were pretty much expanding on, and perfecting, a formula that they nailed on their earlier records. Even 1984′s other punk-based double album that doesn’t stay in one place for too long — the Minutemen’s ‘Double Nickels on the Dime’ — doesn’t pack the same weight and ambition as ‘Zen Arcade.’

Or the songs, for that matter. Because more than anything, ‘Zen Arcade’ is about the songs. The nearly two dozen tracks are divided among singer and guitarist Bob Mould, drummer and singer Grant Hart and group-credited cuts. Abandoning, for the most part, the straight-on assault of ‘Everything Falls Apart’ and the ‘Metal Circus’ EP (also released in 1983), Husker Du’s second album is damn near pop at times. And all the better for it.

Listen to the hook that drives Mould’s ‘Chartered Trips’ or the hard-rock crunch of Hart’s ‘Turn on the News,’ two of the band’s best songs. They don’t necessarily fuel the album’s narrative (only a handful of songs do, really), but they set up the listener for an experience unlike any other heard in 1984.

As the songs weave in and out of each other — and despite the Mould-Hart-Husker Du songwriting credit thread here, they do weave — ‘Zen Arcade’ begins to take shape: This is the sound of Midwest punk uprooting itself and claiming a stake all its own. Fellow Minnesotans the Replacements also aimed big that year (Paul Westerberg finally embraced his love of ’70s pop music on ‘Let It Be,’ purists be damned), but not widescreen. ‘Zen Arcade’ adapts a scope all its own.

By the time the 14-minute track that closes the album, ‘Reoccurring Dreams,’ rolls along, we’re pretty much prepared for it. All of the LP’s excursions have led us to this point. It’s not so much a song as it is an extended psychedelic head trip. It’s a mind-cleansing act by a band that knew we all needed one after what we’ve just been through.

‘Zen Arcade’ lasts 70 minutes — short enough to fit onto a single CD later. But like other sprawling epics from the period, and the preceding periods that influenced it, it feels both longer and shorter. It leaves you breathless at times. And other times it leaves you a little bored. But never once when you’re listening to it does ‘Zen Arcade’ sound anything less than a landmark album of the era and genre.

Husker Du made better, and more focused, albums. The very next one, in fact — 1985′s ‘New Day Rising’ — may very well be their tightest, sharpest and most direct record. But they were never again as ambitious as they were on ‘Zen Arcade,’ not even on their 1987 swan song, ‘Warehouse: Songs and Stories,’ another double album. But that record’s length was due more to the fractured relationship between Mould and Hart, who were struggling for songwriting dominance (a battle that actually started during the ‘Zen Arcade’ sessions).

‘Zen Arcade’ needed two albums to tell its story. Even if the narrative itself is convoluted, the band’s tale — complete with its ambitions, frustrations and eventual victory — cuts a direct path to its masterpiece. Thirty years later, it still sounds like a revelation.

Next: 10 Best College Rock Albums

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