Hüsker Dü - New Day Rising
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I bought Hüsker Dü’s New Day Rising as an antidepressant.
I was not permitted to attend Lollapalooza ’95 in Sacramento, as it was no place for a 15-year-old to be alone. Nobody should’ve been alone there, come to think of it. Barely anyone went to see the festival’s most “underground” lineup with the likes of Sonic Youth, Pavement, The Jesus Lizard and second-stagers The Roots, Dirty Three, and Mike Watt. God bless the MTV Generation. So with delusions of grandeur about brilliant performances and lost moments of cultural " widtenlightenment that a self-proclaimed “non-conformist” like me never saw, I went to the record shop and took home New Day Rising. I read enough two or three-line blurbs to convince me that the 1985 album was revolutionary and was worth my $15.99, on the clunky, touch-screen record search engines displayed in Tower Records at that time. The record supposedly marked a breaking point where hardcore punk went “power pop.” Hüsker Dü was a Band That Mattered in the 80’s indie-rock scheme of things, according to the critics who always knew better than me. Nirvana and Green Day were considered to be Hüsker Dü imitators during their early days. I also recalled scanning a classmate’s copy of Gina Arnold’s Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana and seeing a curious photo of the band. Bassist Greg Norton had that bitchin’ handlebar ‘stache and resembled a children’s entertainer, frontman and Flyin’ V guitarist Bob Mould reminded me of those loners who still hangout in their high school’s parking-lot ten years after graduation. And then there was drummer/vocalist Grant Hart, looking like he just woke up after an all-nighter of Nintendo and Old Milwaukee. New Day Rising’s tracklisting also looked somewhat “punk” to my prejudice at the time, with the likes of “I Don’t Know What You’re Talking About,” “Books about UFOs” and “How to Skin a Cat.” The almighty indie label SST also released the album, so there.
I couldn’t stand that damn record.
Most of the music was all so cute. I could only imagine Hüsker Dü getting pelted with gobs when they tried to play the fey post-break up ballad “I Aw-pa-low-gize” while opening for Black Flag. Worse, the record seemed to be little different from the sentimental dreck I heard on my local “alternative rock” radio stations at the time. I could hear traces of Green Day on the record—the feel-good singalongs that arose from the three-chord raveups. However, I grew to loathe Green Day by that time as their music and the Hüskers’ punk rock seemed terribly pasteurized and was in no way subversive. The only things going for New Day Rising were its volume and restlessness. The opening title track screamed “welcome” in my ear with beats and power chords that immediately causes me to turn down the stereo. During several moments when Mould or Hart tried to serenade the listener, they’d immediately have a bipolar mood swing and screech out the next verse. “Folk Lore” and “Whatcha Drinkin’” were both fine hardcore fits that swing more than thud, as Mould ranted like pro wrestler calling for blood. I later bought Hüsker Dü’s ’84 classic Zen Arcade and was startled by their idea of where hardcore punk could go in a concept album—moving from a call-to-arms to running away from the demons to epiphany and then resolution. New Day Rising, in comparison felt like a step down. Whatever charm and convictions they tried to project in their lyrics and melodies was mostly lost in the hollering, the tinny guitar distortion that lathered the music thanks to engineer Spot’s murky, uneven mix, and the sense that the band was trying to get the record over with. And every time I heard that cutesy piano tinkle on “Books About UFOs,” I ticked down one more day before I would sell the CD back to the shop.
Ten years later, New Day Rising now sounds like one of the great psych-rock albums of the 80’s. The previously handicapped production enhances the record with that context. In improving an experiment from Zen, the record seems like an hour-long haze of songs, akin to listening to countless rock songs from radio stations bleeding into each other while driving on a highway in the dead of night. “Powerline” won me over. The song begins with a rather twee guitar line that is off-putting at first, until Mould leads the band into an eerie and uneasy drone that sleepwalks, no matter how loud and abrasive the music is. His distortion that once polluted the music now sounds dense enough to be proto-shoegaze. This effect is best heard in the title track where Mould sounds like two guitarists playing at once in exhaling a cloud of melodies that move their hands in the air to see the trails. “If I Told You” possesses handfuls of riffs that simply levitate. The band previously explored psychedelica on Zen with the haunting, lysergic balladry of “The Tooth Fairy and the Princess” and the backwards-loop flashback of “Dreams Reoccurring,” but New Day Rising is a truly a milestone in comfortably converting speed-addled hardcore into psychedelica. Even the benzedrine-poisoned closer, “Plans I Make” melts the cortex with its distant hollers and drowning guitar fuzz. There is also the macabre, art-damaged “How to Skin a Cat” where the band discusses going into the cat fur business—one opines “Now get this! We’ll feed the rats to the cats and the cats to the rats!”
There is also a strong Midwestern vibe in the Minneapolis band’s sound, which is a first for Hüsker Dü as they previously dwelled in the same post-punk and hardcore heard around the world. The band’s airy, corn-fed melodicism drank from the same bottle as their hometown’s almighty Replacements. The bleary-eyed mumblings of a hungover soul knocked awake by sunrise in “59 Times the Pain,” and “Perfect Example” are both sublime and wearied by good times lost. “Folk Lore” is still the highlight—its tale is of heroes cheerled by American mythology and, in return, become neglected and embittered has-beens living off of Wonderbread. Hüsker Dü nosedives through the whole song as if shouting into a bloke’s ear at a punk club between sips of beer. The song then breaks our heart: Mould’s riffs tell us that predicament is just the way in a world where apathy and selfishness are all too commonplace. “Some things never change / Some things remain the same / Some things rearranged / One thing I know for sure, your heroes always die,” Mould concludes.
I recently heard Flip Your Wig, an album that the Hüskers released a few months after New Day Rising. The abrasion, the tension, and the surrealism are all gone with nothing more than catchy, catchy, catchy pop-punk in its place. Many of the songs could possibly sell gold if Clear Channel got behind it.
I can’t stand that damn record.
By: Cameron Macdonald
Published on: 2005-11-01