Hüsker Dü underwent one of the most staggering transformations in the history of popular music on Zen Arcade, evolving rapidly from a competent hardcore punk band to a eclectic trio, attempting everything from psychedelic freakouts to acoustic ballads without sacrificing any of their intensity. Zen Arcade is a double album set, recorded and mixed in an astounding 85 hours straight, and all but two of the songs were recorded first take. Unlike the somewhat romanticised version of adolescence on Quadrophenia or Born To Run, the world of Zen Arcade is gritty and realistic. The romantic breakup of ‘Never Talking To You Again’, the family disintegration of ‘Broken Home, Broken Heart’, the sense of political impotence of ‘Turn on the News’ and ‘Newest Industry’, the drug tragedy of ‘Pink Turns To Blue’; the album portrays a disillusionment at events beyond the control of the young narrators.
Hart steals the show with his more direct material; the bitter acoustic ballad ‘Never Talking To You Again’ is the first indication of the surprising diversity of the album, while ‘Pink Turns To Blue’ and ‘Turn On The News’ are two of Zen Arcade’s most accessible entry points. Mould turns in the lo-fi delight ‘Chartered Trips’, with a gorgeous melody that belies the spiky nature of the song, as well as the cartharthic ‘Broken Home, Broken Heart’. The creepy semi-instrumentals, the chanted ‘Hare Krisna’ and ‘The Tooth Fairy and the Princess’, are engrossing in their own right, while the two short linking piano instrumentals are absolutely gorgeous.
It’s not perfect, but Zen Arcade is a stone cold classic on intensity and emotional impact alone.