Sat May 5, Graceland, 381-3094.
Hüsker Dü, disbanded now some 14 odd years, has become the retrospective darling of highbrow rock critics everywhere. For once, this is as it should be. The Minneapolis trio that torched a bright, smoldering path through the wilderness of second-wave hardcore in the mid-to-late '80s is surely to its decade what the Velvet Underground was to pop music of the late '60s. In much the same way that Lou Reed exploded the conventions of music by adding a gritty street realism to the hooks and harmonies of traditional bubblegum pop, Hüsker Dü rescued punk rock from its ghetto of narcissistic angst with a blend of burning enthusiasm and emotional savvy. Behind the band's legendary wall-of-distortion sound lurked perfectly construed pop songs buttressed by lyrics that were intelligent and deeply candid. Hüsker Dü made punk personal and introspective without losing any of its edge.
What made Hüsker Dü a truly remarkable band was its internal dynamic: not one but two uniquely gifted artists swapping singing and songwriting duties in a charged yet fragile symbiosis of talent and dire passion. Guitarist Bob Mould and drummer Grant Hart were the twin engines propelling Hüsker Dü's nouveau punk into visionary realms. Here another comparison is apt: Think Lennon and McCartney. On such albums as New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig, it's the creative give-and-take between Hart and Mould that makes each song transcendent; any discernment one wishes to make between opposing talents is obviated by the staggering quality of the whole. The tension is always palpable, and magnificent. In every sense, Hüsker Dü was about integrity--about sustaining this precipitous pact--and when that integrity began to break down, the tension indeed tore the band apart.
While it lasted, though, the unified front of Hüsker Dü presented (borrowing a phrase from bumper-sticker liberals) an incredibly compelling celebration of artistic diversity. Beneath the generic umbrella of rock and roll, Hart and Mould could not have stood further apart, artistically speaking. The yin and yang was the thing; it at once defines and explains the band's timeless appeal. While both musicians evinced a deep knowledge and understanding of the idiosyncratic history of pop music, individually they utilized and translated such mastery to markedly different ends. The twining and tangling of their work was the most beautiful of collaborations.
Mould, for his part, completely reconceptualized the apocalyptic sense of alienation that is punk rock's truest subject. His songs granted a redemptive measure of maturity to the genre's perpetual outbursts of adolescent fear and loathing. With his nasally, metallic growl cutting like a ripsaw through layers of isolation and confusion, Mould's songwriting describes the innermost contours of desperation, giving the precise dimensions of one man's psychic prison. Hart, on the other hand, while no stranger to the intricacies of emotional torment, urged his songs in the opposite direction, toward an escape from the tortuous prisons of the mind. His surreal, free-associating lyrics are laden with metaphors of liberation; everything is a movement away from the pointless solipsism of suffering.
If Mould's steely voice was the perfect vehicle for conveying his own lacerating brand of lyricism, Hart's sexy, growly, junked-out croon was the personification of release itself. In fact, Hart--along with John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, David Bowie, and Ronnie Van Zant--possesses the perfect rock and roll voice: whiskey-smooth, infinitely textured, immediately nostalgic, plaintive and overjoyed, and yet almost lazy in execution. Without Hart, Mould's pill would have been way too bitter. (And without Mould, Hart might have drifted into the otherworldly irrelevance of poetic overindulgence.) Serendipity doesn't even begin to explain these two guys meeting up in St. Paul in 1979. Nor does tragedy overstate Hüsker Dü's breakup in 1987.
All of which brings me to this point: When, a couple of days back, I gave my first listen to Grant Hart's most recent solo album, Good News for Modern Man (1999), I nearly broke down in tears. That voice! Like hearing at last from a lovable genius fuck-up of a long-lost friend. More so than Mould--who's released a string of diverse, successful solo works since the appearance of Workbook in '89--Hart has held on to the essential spirit and ethos of Hüsker Dü. Some of the songs on Good News, such as "Think It over Now" and "Little Nemo," are fantastically reminiscent of Hüsker's Warner Bros. years; the funkier, more experimental tracks are directly evolved from the work on Hart's first solo record, Intolerance.
Yes, this is all good news indeed. To relate my giddiness over the fact of Hart's endurance, I'll reach back into the bucket for a snippet of lyrics from one of my favorite Hüsker songs, an example of classic Grant:
"If your heart is a flame burning brightly/You'll have light and you'll never be cold/and, soon you will know that you just grow/you're not growing old."