Something I Learned Today: A Review of Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade
I generally believe an album to be an experience; an experience that lends itself best to being enjoyed in one sitting. Be it in a car on a long road trip, alone in your room late at night, in the company of friends and family, or in the background when working on something, an album is best when it’s allowed to proceed uninterrupted. Generally, I fall into the last category. Being a college student, a lot of my time is dedicated to working on random assignments, and I almost always have an album playing in the background while I’m working. It may not be the most wise time to listen to music, since some of my attention is diverted, but it’s generally what I do, and, until it comes back to bite me in the form of a shitty grade, it’ll probably continue to be what I do.
I only mention this because it was in this very scenario that I first experienced Zen Arcade.
Zen Arcade, Minnesotan hardcore punk trio Hüsker Dü’s second studio album, was released in July 1984 on SST Records (the very same month as Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime, another great punk rock double album- way to go SST!). I was born in 1998, so this album is clearly before my time, and, even then, it’s not the most widely known rock album in the world. I mean, it’s not like we’re talking about Led Zeppelin IV here. Why am I choosing to review such an obscure record from over a decade before I was born? Well for starters, this album, in my opinion at least, deserves a spot on the pantheon of all-time great rock albums: right up there with Led Zeppelin IV, Dark Side of the Moon, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I’m not joking either.
As I indicated before, Zen Arcade is indeed a double album, clocking in at over 70 minutes. Ok, so that may not be too out of the norm now, with the advent of digital music and, since Zen Arcade’s initial release (even though they’re a bit passé now), CDs, but, at the time, albums that long were a pretty big deal, and in the realm of hardcore punk, double albums were virtually unheard of. I only mention this because Zen Arcade’s length is one of the many facets that make it such a trailblazing album. Given the albums length, I’m going to analyze each of the album’s four sides, but first I’ll discuss my initial experience with Zen Arcade.
The time: late afternoon (I didn’t write down the exact time, but work with me here, ok?). The place: Morehead State University. While sitting in my cozy yet ever so slightly claustrophobic dorm room, I sat at my desk working on a lab report. Hell if I can remember what it was about, but I digress. As I sat there writing about some long since forgotten chemical concept, I decided to give this album Zen Arcade a try. I’d heard about it from my various late night Wikipedia readings about my favorite alt-rock bands (fIREHOSE or Minutemen, probably), and the name remained stuck in my head. Zen Arcade. I imagined someone meditating while playing Pac-Man or something like that.
Horrible linguistic jokes aside, I decided to listen to the album while I typed my lab report. After about an hour of music and tedious typing, I gathered my thoughts and tried to formulate an opinion on what I had just heard.
“Eh. It was pretty good, I guess.”
Yeah, for as much as I’d hyped it up for you guys and gals, y’all were probably expecting something more along the lines of “Whoa that was mindblowing!” or something like that. Honestly, I was pretty disappointed upon hearing it for the first time. All that I’d read about it couldn’t help salvage it…until the very next day…whereupon, while walking to class, I decided to listen to it again for some strange reason. I’m still unsure what caused me to give it another try, but I did.
It then became one of my all time favorite albums, and every time I’ve listened to it since then, it’s only gotten better.
As I mentioned before, I’m gonna break the album up into sides and review each one independently. Side One starts off with “Something I Learned Today,” a quick, aggressive punk rock tune. As soon as the drums kick in, followed by that bassline, you’re immediately sucked in. Then Bob Mould’s first chord screams through the speakers: pure punk rock ecstasy. The album as a whole is a concept album: dealing with an unnamed protagonist running away from home to try to find peace with himself, but not all songs follow this narrative. The first four tracks, on the other hand, do, and “Something I Learned Today” essentially describes our main character’s emotions (“something I learned today, black and white is always gray”). Next up is “Broken Home, Broken Heart,” another quick hardcore tune. The lyrics in this song are pretty cut and dry, as evidenced by the title. Our main character belongs to a dysfunctional family and is sick of the quarrels.
This leads into track three, “Never Talking to You Again.” A refreshing divergence from the hardcore punk of the first two tracks, this one is a folk-inspired acoustic song in which the protagonist decides to leave his family. Next up is my personal favorite track on the album, “Chartered Trips.” This song has one of the best guitar riffs I’ve ever heard, and when I finally take the time to learn how to play said instrument, I’d love to be able to replicate this magic. In this song, our narrator decides to presumably join some branch of the military.
Don’t worry, I’m not gonna analyze every single one of the 23 tracks, I’m just describing songs that I think are important to the narrative and songs I think help to define the album. Pretty much all of side two, which contains great tunes in their own right, is pretty irrelevant to the narrative (in my opinion anyway), but the third track of Side Two, “I’ll Never Forget You,” needs to be talked about. This song is heavy, aggressive, heartbreaking, and nothing but pure emotion. It’s the best hardcore punk love song of all time. Side Two also contains the brilliant “Masochism World” and the eerily desolate “Standing by the Sea,” both sung by Grant Hart.
Side Three picks up the pace, in regards to the narrative, and starts with “Somewhere,” a bleak but ever so slightly hopeful tune in which our protagonist yearns for happiness (“somewhere the dirt is washed out with the rain, somewhere there’s happiness instead of pain”). Next up is a beautiful piano interlude, followed by one of the more famous tracks on the album, “Pink Turns to Blue.” This song is heartbreaking, depressing, and magnificent. Bob Mould’s guitar riff drives the song, and Hart’s vocals carry all the emotion. The lyrics describe our main character finally finding love only to have her die of a drug overdose (“No more rope and too much dope, she’s lying on the bed. Angels pacing, gently placing roses ‘round her head”). Side Three is best described as an emotional rollercoaster, and this is exemplified by the penultimate track on the side, “Whatever.” This song essentially summarizes the narrative of the album, and has our protagonist apologizing for all he has done.
Side four has only two songs, and the first is “Turn on the News.” This song isn’t part of the main story, but who the hell cares? This song is awesome- a high octane, fist pumping, hard rock anthem. This is one of the best songs to come out of the 80s, and is probably a good place to start to determine whether or not you’ll dig this band. Definitely one of Hüsker Dü’s best, and if Guitar Hero and Rock Band survive to make more games, THIS SONG BETTER BE ON ONE OF THEM. And, closing the album, is the 14 minute free jazz-hardcore punk cacophony, “Reoccurring Dreams.” This song is a train wreck in the very best way. This song, since it’s an instrumental, doesn’t contribute to the main narrative apart from its title: Reoccurring Dreams.
Wait…does this mean the whole story was nothing but a dream?
Cliché multimedia tropes notwithstanding, Zen Arcade is a bona fide masterpiece of rock music, and I highly recommend that anyone who enjoys Nirvana, Pearl Jam, or good rock music in general gives this record a try. I mean, how can you not love a hardcore punk record with piano interludes, 80s-style hard rock anthems, depressing drug ballads, and crazy-ass 14 minute psychedelic jams?
Cory’s rating: 11/10. Seriously. It’s that freakin’ good.
KEY TRACKS: “Something I Learned Today,” “Chartered Trips,” “Indecision Time,” “I’ll Never Forget You,” “Standing by the Sea,” “Somewhere,” “Pink Turns to Blue,” “Whatever,” “Turn on the News.”