If you’re a newcomer to the works of Hüsker Dü — as I am — don’t start with Zen Arcade.
That was my mistake. The critical scuttlebutt says this sprawling double album is essential listening in the Hüsker Dü oeuvre, but given the way it was recorded — in 85 hours with mostly first takes — it’s a hot mess and not necessarily a good first impression.
Said scuttlebutt also indicates New Day Rising is the band’s best album, and if I started there first, I would have become a fan sooner.
Zen Arcade tried to be many things at one time, something New Day Rising avoids by concentrating on being fast and hard. The band’s sound changes little from track to track, Bob Mould’s thin guitar slicing through the strangled bottom end of bassist Greg Norton and drummer Grant Hart.
But beneath that surface is a cohesion taut enough to propel the album. The opening title track doesn’t contain much lyrically, but the cresting intensity pretty much establishes the business at hand.
From there, it’s one hard sonic slap to the next. Mould is barely comprehensible on most of these tracks, his screaming more a means to deliver a melody than to tell a story.
And for all the buzzing guitars and garbled lyrics, New Day Rising is surprisingly melodic.
The harmonizing on the choruses of "The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill" and "I Apologize" really make a difference. Cleaned up, "If I Told You" could almost pass for a single. And even the Replacements-like shuffle beat of "Books About UFOs" doesn’t sound out of place.
Subtle touches also push New Day Rising further than its surface would indicate. The vocal echo on "Powerline" make it sound slightly ethereal, while the backing vocals on "Terms of Psychic Warfare" bring out its pop underpinnings.
The band makes few departures — "How to Skin a Cat" is a dissonant, experimental musing on, well, skinning cats. "Whatcha Drinkin’" is a straight-up hardcore exercise, while "Perfect Example" brings on the acoustic guitars.
New Day Rising focuses its energy on speed, volume and more than a good share on melody. At some point, I may re-explore Zen Arcade, but if you want to start somewhere with Hüsker Dü, New Day Rising is your destination.