Graded on a Curve:
Hüsker Dü,
“Metal Circus”

Lookee here; I didn’t become the world’s foremost rock critic (in my mind, baby, in my mind!) by keeping my crackpot opinions to myself. No, I share them with everybody, because the way I look at it, why should I suffer for my art when you can do it for me? Anyway, I’ve been listening to Minneapolis hardcore kings Hüsker Dü for the first time in several decades, and it is my infallible critical opinion that the trio of guitarist Bob Mould, drummer Grant Hart, and bassist Greg Norton (of the great handlebar mustache) commenced to go downhill the moment they ditched legendary SST record producer Spot—who got a bad rap, in my opinion, for his murky productions—in favor of handling the production duties themselves.

Sure, they cleaned up their sound and made it more pristine, but I loved Spot’s murk, because it lent every album he produced an aura of post-punk primitivism and disdain for the sparkling productions of every artist not part of the hardcore community. His was the DIY sound of the hardcore underground, and I am of the opinion that the three albums Hüsker Dü produced after giving poor Spot his walking papers (i.e., 1985’s Flip Your Wig, 1986’s Candy Apple Grey, and 1987’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories) are polished to the point of sterility. Not for nothing did I stop listening to Hüsker Dü after their high-water mark, 1985’s Spot-produced New Day Rising, which was about the time they were poised to break through big time thanks to their heavy presence on college radio.

Me, I’m still attached to their “Metal Circus” EP, on which Hüsker Dü first began to differentiate themselves from hardcore’s fast and hard ethos. Nobody ever played it faster and harder than they did on their 1980 debut, the appropriately titled “Land Speed Record” EP, but by the time they released 1983’s “Metal Circus” they were introducing harmony and melody into their tunes, especially on the Grant Hart contributions, “It’s Not Funny Anymore” and “Diane.”

But the promise of a more melodic approach is also there in Mould’s ringing guitar sound on the album’s landmark opening track, “Real World,” on which Mould’s ranting vocals prove that velocity equals rage, and which blew me away the first time I heard it. This is hardcore, but with a subtle melodic twist. And unlike many other hardcore bands Hüsker Dü wasn’t calling for anarchy. Empty talk, barks Mould, who admits he locks his doors at night and wants nothing to do with nihilism and its hollow screams of “Destroy!” It was a shocker at the time, at least to this guy, and not so far really from the principles espoused by Otto in the 1984 Alex Cox film Repo Man, who has gone far enough down the road of hardcore nihilism to understand it’s nothing more than a self-justifying shuck.

Mould goes on to question even the idea of peaceful protest on the next track, the equally ferocious “Deadly Skies,” shouting, “I’d like to protest, but I’m not sure what it’s for/I guess I’ve got no control over the threat of nuclear war.” So he doesn’t believe in anarchy, and he’s dubious about joining any demonstration, and you have to wonder, what does he believe in? Fatalism, seems to be the answer, if fatalism is something you can actually believe in. My opinion? If it was good enough for X, it was good enough for me.

The far more lightweight “It’s Not Funny Anymore” is more melodic and includes a cool guitar riff by Mould, and is a sign of the differences between songwriters Mould and Grant. Mould was an angry, humorless guy, sort of like a Midwest Ian MacKaye, which got old after a while. Hart, on the other hand, was more whimsical and wrote more melodic tunes, and without his contributions on subsequent albums I think I’d have soon tired of nothing but Mould’s sermonizing, which at its most strident was every bit as bad as that of Minor Threat. But they made a good team, what with Hart’s more poppy “It’s Not Funny Anymore” adding a bit of welcome leavening to Mould’s fast and savage assault on boozehounds that is “First of the Last Calls.” Why is it that so many of these hardcore guys were so puritanical? I don’t have an answer, but Hüsker Dü never openly espoused any straightedge principles, so this drug and alcohol-abusing jerk gave them the benefit of the doubt.

As for the pummeling and speedfreak fast “Lifeline” the lyrics are your usual adolescent feelings of being trapped and fucked, but I always hated such lyrics, probably because I was no adolescent and hankered for the kinds of sarcasm and humor at which the pre-Rollins (boo, boo!) Black Flag and Circle Jerks excelled. As for Hart’s “Diane” it made quite the impression, both because it was recorded at a moderate tempo and because of its subject matter, to wit the horrific real life murder of a West St. Paul waitress in 1980. Hart’s vocals are anguished, the lyrics will give you the willies, and Mould’s guitar work provides the perfect backdrop for the tune. As for the clamorous and noisy “Out on a Limb,” it opens with a big drumbeat and some very harmonic and chorus-style guitar before Mould takes to muttering in the background and playing some totally over-the-top freak guitar. Throw in some screaming, even more guitar mayhem, and a great riff, and what you have is one helluva trip into discord, as opposed to Dischord.

Yeah, so that’s that. By the time Hüsker Dü had taken the major league plunge and hooked up with Warner Bros. Records in 1986, I was beyond caring. I was listening to the Meat Puppets and the Minutemen, and by the time Hüsker Dü broke up and Mould formed Sugar in 1992 I couldn’t have cared less, because I had Cows and Killdozer in my life, and who could ask for more? And I haven’t really listened to Hüsker Dü since, which made writing this review a bittersweet trip down memory lane.

They were there for me, Hüsker Dü, when I needed them. I must have played 1984’s Zen Arcade and New Day Rising 10,000 times apiece. Their sheer aggression helped me channel my rage at Ronald Reagan and his minions, but I outgrew that rage, Reagan went his senile way, and I went my drunken way, and when I hear Hüsker Dü now I find myself wishing they’d have lightened up a little, tossed some humor into the mix, and made me laugh. That’s the way I like things in the real world. Which is why I can still listen to Cows, Killdozer, and the Meat Puppets, while I never listen to Hüsker Dü. Because, you know, I’m left looking, to quote the very funny Iggy Pop, for the joke with a microscope.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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