[3 September 2009]
Sound Affects Editor
I say this with utter, unwavering conviction: Hüsker Dü is the most criminally underappreciated alt-rock band of the pre-Nirvana era. While contemporaries like R.E.M. and Sonic Youth have joined the rock canon, Hüsker Dü (which consisted of vocalist/guitarist Bob Mould, vocalist/drummer Grant Hart, and bassist Greg Norton) remains relatively unknown, and is often forgotten in the modern narrative of the development of the American underground scene in the 1980s. This is especially troubling since Hüsker Dü was the group responsible for pioneering the sonic hallmarks traditionally associated with alternative rock: the potent mix of distortion and pop melodies, the angst-filled lyrics, and even the rhythm of the guitars. Music journalist Michael Azerrad gave the group its due in his 2001 history Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, and the band does make sporadic appearances on various “Best albums of the 1980s” critics lists, but it’s nowhere near what it actually deserves. Bluntly, Hüsker Dü‘s best albums deserve to be spoken of in the same breath as alt-rock classics like Nirvana’s Nevermind, Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, and the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa.
Of all its records, Hüsker Dü‘s New Day Rising is its best and most consistent, bursting with hooks and driven by a sheer urgency that overwhelms the listener. Recorded in July 1984, New Day Rising was the first of two albums the Minneapolis band released on Southern California indie label SST in 1985. The group’s preceding release, the justly acclaimed double album opus Zen Arcade (1984), blew apart the conventions of hardcore punk into a thousand searing pieces in methods that ranged from one-and-a-half-minute acoustic numbers to fourteen-minute punk-psych epics. Zen Arcade‘s legend looms large in the Hüsker Dü discography; what is generally overlooked is that the group’s follow-up album naturally had to figure out what to do next. SST’s edict that the group’s next release be restricted to a single disc actually benefited the trio. What the Hüskers did on this album was summarize the lessons learned on Zen Arcade into a concise 40-minute package, in the process closing the door once and for all on its punk incarnation and setting the template for the sound of alternative rock well into the next decade.
New Day Rising is fitted to the rafters with first-rate music. Michael Azerrad noted in Our Band Could Be Your Life that by the time of New Day Rising, the band members had figured out how to preserve their blitzkrieg punk grooves at slower tempos, which allowed them to write and emphasis longer melodies. However, the key component to the artistic success of the record is how Bob Mould redefined his guitar style in the wake of Zen Arcade. As this insightful analysis on The Hüsker Dü Fan Archive illustrates, Mould pulled back from his previous reliance on hammering out barre chords up and down the guitar neck. Instead, on this album and onwards the guitarist favored open and suspended chords with common notes as drones. In addition to creating a big, open guitar sound, the unresolving nature of suspended chords gave the chord progressions a momentum that constantly hurtled the music forward.
The results are remarkably tuneful. On the album opener “New Day Rising”, Mould and Hart shout the song title over and over, verging on ecstatic chaos at times but always moving in harmony with the chord progression. The riff-driven psychedelic dirge “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” is followed up by the punky suspended chord rave-up “I Apologize”, creating one of the greatest two-song sequences ever captured on a rock record. “If I Told You” bridges its bouncy verses with descending lead guitar spirals, aided by Mould’s urgent harmonies. A similar vocal technique appears on “Terms of Psychic Warfare”, which seesaws and sways with Norton’s rolling bassline. The band takes a stylistic detour for the jaunty piano-led shuffle of “Books About UFOs”, a song on which the listener can practically envision unabashed hippie Hart’s beaming smile as he sings. The album only lags in quality at the end, where the hazy atonality of “How to Skin a Cat”, the hardcore-by-numbers of “Whatcha Drinkin”, and the tightly wound lawnmower-motor riffing of “Plans I Make” are tacked onto. Considering the rest of the album showcases the dueling talents of Mould and Hart as truly world-class songwriters, these tracks are blandly forgettable in comparison.
The album’s shining centerpiece is “Celebrated Summer”, which sounds like a dry run for the sort of songs that would become modern rock radio staples a decade later. While the then-unprecedented shifts from distorted guitar-heavy verses to soft acoustic sections are not handled in the smoothest manner (there is a definite tempo lag, and it takes the band a few beats after each section change to regain its momentum), Mould sells the song by singing the lyrics as if his life depended on it, pushing the melody up and down until it lodges into your head. When Mould hollers the words “Do you remember when the first snowfall fell? / When summer barely had a snowball’s chance in hell?” with the force of a hurricane amid the rush of music, hair stands on end. It’s at that moment the song stops being a rather good one and becomes a great one.
In hindsight, the sound of New Day Rising seems logical, as it showcases Hüsker Dü figuring out how to craft an inseparable mix of noise and pop, a process that started as far back as “Diane” from the 1983 Metal Circus EP. However, at the time New Day Rising kicked off murmurs in the indie scene that the group was going “commercial”. In a way, they were right: the sound Hüsker Dü solidified on New Day Rising would inform the music of artists including Dinosaur Jr., the Pixies, Nirvana, and Green Day, who all had varying levels of commercial success. However, what I find most striking about New Day Rising is not how ahead of its time it was, or how hook-laden the band’s wall of noise is. What is enrapturing about the album is how relentlessly vital it sounds. The Hüskers never deliver half-heartedly, and they never let up even in the quietest moments. As a result, the record is a consistently engaging masterpiece that deserves to be recognized (and listened to) by a far wider sphere than it actually is.