Hüsker Dü came howling out of the Midwest just as the eighties began. Formed by three members in 1979, Hüsker Dü initially helped develop the hardcore punk mold.
The vocals were screamed and the beats frantic. Even the umlauts over the “u”s in their band name, which were aesthetic and not necessary for pronunciation, became a standard fixture for metal bands wishing to add a gothic flare to their names.
With their fourth album, New Day Rising, Hüsker Dü expanded upon the experimental success of their previous album, Zen Arcade, which marked a move away from the hardcore punk scene. Zen Arcade was a concept album or, as David Fricke from Rolling Stonesays, almost a hardcore opera, the “blueprint for a brave new music.” The critical and, to some extent, commercial success of Zen Arcade paved the way for New Day Rising.
The album was released by California-based SST Records, a label that had already signed Minutemen and Black Flag and would later add Sonic Youth. Hüsker Dü was the first band SST signed outside of Southern California.
On New Day Rising, band members Bob Mould and Grant Hart were competitive songwriters. Lead singer and guitarist Mould wrote the majority of the tracks. Hart, the band’s drummer, contributed a few catchy, appealingly flippant tracks like “Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” and the classic-rock-influenced “Terms of Psychic Warfare,” which has a bass riff that sticks in the mind of listeners after the short but sweeping track closes.
Hart is also responsible for “Books About UFOs,” possibly the most pop influenced track on the album, and definitely the most accessible to general audiences. It opens with a swinging ragtime piano part, which continues under simple, melodic vocals.
The quirky but light-hearted lyrics fit the music, going no deeper than a chorus that declares, “She tells the same old story to everyone that she knows / She’s just sitting in her room reading books about UFOs.” These tracks pepper the lengthy album, keeping the more introspective and serious tracks fresh.
Bob Mould also tested new waters with his contributions on the album. One of the most popular tracks to emerge from the record, “Celebrated Summer,” undoubtedly has its roots in punk. Furiously strummed power chords and relentless percussion pull the song forward. But the lyrics are comparatively calm, and at the 1:45 mark the song takes a breather.
The percussion vanishes completely and Mould’s vocals are alone over a finger-picked guitar for a good twenty seconds before other instruments begin layering in again. It is a beautiful moment of peace in the song, and the most notable break from hardcore on the album. That being said, tracks like the roaring “Plans I Make” stand as a testament to Hüsker Dü’s hardcore days and assured fans that the band’s urgency had in no way been lost.
While Zen Arcade was Hüsker Dü’s first step toward more melodic songwriting, it was on New Day Rising that the band produced tracks that were able to stand on their own as early heralds of alternative and college-rock music.
Song like those on New Day Rising were essential to broadening the appeal of Hüsker Dü and making them viable competition for other burgeoning alternative rock bands, like their cross-town rivals The Replacements, who were successfully blending punk and pop elements around the same time.