In terms of sheer productivity, Hüsker Dü is the most vital rock & roll band in America today. Warehouse: Songs and Stories is the Minneapolis zoom-punk trio’s second double album in three years, capping a machine-gun series of releases that includes the surrealist two-record opera Zen Arcade, the celebratory New Day Rising and last year’s major-label debut, Candy Apple Grey. It is a breathtaking canvas of rainbow slam pop and lyric liberation that eclipses nearly everything else in Eighties postpunk rock, here or abroad, and an embarrassment to superstar acts that strut down from the mountaintop with their stone tablets every two or three years.
However, Warehouse: Songs and Stories — written and produced by guitarist Bob Mould and drummer Grant Hart and named for the rehearsal space where the band hammered out these twenty songs before going into the studio — is a remarkable achievement in its own right. Over the album’s four lavahot sides, Mould, Hart and bassist Greg Norton reconcile the shotgun wedding of folk-avant-paisley-punk extremes on Zen Arcade and Candy Apple Grey into a nuclear whole, a BIG band roar that whips you through the zigzag program of alternating Mould and Hart songs with obsessive ferocity. The five songs on side one alone constitute Hüsker Dü’s most intense blast of nonstop, high-speed metallurgy since its 1983 EP Metal Circus.
The density is deceiving. Although Warehouse lands in your lap with all the gentility of a cinder block, Hüsker Dü has cleverly dosed the knuckle-sandwich concentrate of Mould’s fission-fuzz guitar and the jackhammer Norton-Hart pulse with offbeat sound effects, atypical instrumentation and rhythmic change-ups that subtly fuel the blustery surge of the album. Rattlesnake-shake percussion and the church-bell chime of a glockenspiel heighten the metallic clamor of Hart’s “Charity, Chastity, Prudence and Hope”; backward distortion and the sonar ping-ping-ping of a synthetically treated acoustic guitar accent the turbulent indecision in Mould’s “No Reservations.” “She Floated Away” ping-pongs between a dreamy waltzlike chorus and whiplash jazz, while “Actual Condition” is a not-quite-two-minute collision of Eddie Cochran bop and T. Rex glam crunch.
But the absorption of these deviant shadings of tone and tempo into the total bang perfectly suits the album’s dramatic momentum. Zen Arcade was an episodic tour of one young man’s dreams, accelerating and braking as he stumbled through his subconscious, a punk-rock rites-of-passage hybrid of London Calling and the Beatles’ White Album. Warehouse, on the other hand, is a Layla for the thrash generation, an in-and-out-of-love song cycle that eerily mirrors the emotional upheavals at the heart of Eric Clapton’s classic 1970 blues-rock double album with Derek and the Dominos.
Against the gray tornado rush of the band (an appropriate metaphor for the monochromatic blur of real life), Mould and Hart stage little playlets about relationships in various stages of coming together and blowing apart, of chums and lovers beset by hurt, uncertainty and the paralyzing fear that precious time is running out. Indeed, Mould fires the starting gun in Warehouse‘s race against the clock in the very first song, “These Important Years.” “You’d better grab ahold of something/Simple but it’s true,” he urges against the menacing chain-saw hum of his guitar. “If you don’t stop to smell the roses now/They might end up on you.”
These are not epic romances or friendships, by any means, and there are no happy endings. “Charity, Chastity, Prudence and Hope” is a back-alley cameo of two down-and-outers “digging through the trash for cans … turning garbage into gold.” Later, in “She’s a Woman (and Now He Is a Man),” Hart contrasts the growing chasm between a couple with the mutual pain that’s driving them apart (“There’s a vacancy between them everyday/And a sense of guilt that’s not going away”). And neither Mould nor Hart have any patience with people who gorge themselves on cheap thrills and ego trips. Hart’s “You’re a Soldier” (“Knocking over everything that’s standing in your way”) and Mould’s “Friend, You’ve Got to Fall” are both powerful, righteous put-downs rammed home by the trio’s Mack-truck attack and shaky but strident vocal harmonies, kind of like landlocked, pissed-off Beach Boys.
Yet Warehouse is ultimately a very hopeful record. Instead of trading in bogus promises and false euphoria, the characters in these songs and stories strive to survive. The mere act of coping in a song like “Bed of Nails” — Mould snarling the words (“I can walk the bed of nails/Grin and bear the pain”) over a dark, choppy arrangement and a bottomless pit of echo — seems heroic. The album’s final track, “You Can Live at Home,” is basically a mini-drama about separation: “You’re looking for a chance to give your mind a rest…. I can be beautiful without you torturing me.” But Hart’s boyish bray is practically inaudible over the monster blare of the band. It is in the vigorous march of the band and Mould’s freak-out guitar screech during the final mantralike coda that you get the real feeling of emancipation. Just as Mould opens Warehouse with a call to action, “You Can Live at Home” brings down the curtain on a new beginning.
Commonly perceived as a “hard-core” band, Hüsker Dü has long since seceded from the Mohawk Nation, so the sonic ingenuity and lyric design of Warehouse: Songs and Stories should come as no great shock. Ironically, though, given the band’s open disavowal of hardcore’s rigid militancy and hoodlum rites, like stage diving, Warehouse: Songs and Stories is in fact an extraordinary ordinary reaffirmation of punk rock’s basic life force.
Sure, punk as Sid Vicious knew it — as a bozo up-yours gesture against an uptight world — is stone-cold dead. But Warehouse, already a viable candidate for album of the year, is teeming with life. These are songs about real people in tough situations, scored with white-noise fury, dynamite choruses (like the killer hook in Mould’s “Ice Cold Ice”) and quite a bit of humor, however black (the sarcastic cluck of the cuckoo clock at the end of “Tell You Why Tomorrow”). “Revolution starts at home, preferably in the bathroom mirror,” according to the brief, uncredited notes on one of the album’s inner sleeves. Step into Warehouse and see your reflection.