Release Date: Jul 23, 2013
Record label: Domino
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
As the legacy of Hüsker Dü has shown, equal songwriting partnerships do not necessary translate to equal statures. Throughout the St. Paul noise-pop pioneers’ 1980-87 tenure, Bob Mould and Grant Hart exhibited a Lennon/McCartney-esque division of songwriting labor (and the festering internal tensions that inevitably result), but in terms of post-breakup public profile, Hart may as well be Pete Best.
For some, Grant Hart will always be the second principal songwriter (after Bob Mould) behind Hüsker Dü’s 1980s melodic wall of noise. But after Nova Mob and other undervalued solo projects, the 52-year-old is finally ready to step out of Mould’s shadow and into the light with the sprawling and conceptual ‘The Argument’. Based on both Dante’s Inferno and an unpublished William Burroughs manuscript, this is a no-flab 20-song cinematic suite in four movements, featuring Hart’s weather-beaten Bowie-like semi-falsetto in all of its majesty.
Never let it be said that Grant Hart lacks ambition. He may be erratic, his solo career progressing in fits and starts, but even then it didn't take much for him to take another stab at a rock opera or other long-form conceptual pieces, something that, for all his restlessness, Hart's former bandmate Bob Mould often resisted throughout his own solo career. Hart righted himself in 2009 with Hot Wax, not just his first album in a decade but his strongest collection of songs, and that renaissance continues on The Argument, a dense, lengthy song cycle based partially on John Milton's Paradise Lost and partially on William S.
As the drummer in Hüsker Dü, Grant Hart was slightly overshadowed by the frontman, Bob Mould, despite writing and singing many of the band's best and most interesting songs. However, his fifth solo album finds his talents and ambition undimmed. A mammoth 20-song concept album inspired by Milton's Paradise Lost and William Burroughs' unpublished Lost Paradise, The Argument finds Hart grappling with big themes of sin, temptation and the Devil amid a dizzying musical adventure.
John Milton’s Paradise Lost has inspired many throughout the ages: from Wordsworth, the Shelleys and other Romantics, through to Salman Rushdie and beacons of popular culture such as Fallout 3 and Se7en. Oh, and it inspired a whole section of the London Olympics Opening Ceremony. Of course, music hasn’t escaped the clutches of, to quote literary critic John Carey, “literature’s first Romantic, Satan”.
Twenty-five years ago, America’s greatest hardcore band succumbed. Major label stresses, said the moneymen. Drug-fueled dysfunction, said the rivals. Lovers’ quarrel, said the forked-tongued. Once the gossip waned, the implosion of Hüsker Dü evolved into a narrative of mighty creative ….
Milton’s Paradise Lost has inspired some of the most compelling literature of the last couple of centuries. The wild, virtuoso, god-stroking poetry of William Blake; the gothic, lyrical warnings of Shelley’s Frankenstein; even sections of Salman Rushdie’s jihad-inducing The Satanic Verses all look to the epic 1667 poem for thematic guidance. Musically, however, Milton’s description of the corruption of Adam & Eve and Satan’s first stroll through humanity has tossed up far less salubrious homage – aside from providing the stern sex-oak that is Nick Cave with a couple of decades of lyrical ammo it’s largely been a go-to text for shoddy metal bands looking to plump their intellectual feathers and make like a poetry peacock, hoping that the stature of the piece, the grandness of it’s sweep, will somehow legitimise their collective caterwaul.
If the Punk 101 rulebook contains a chapter dedicated to hating concept albums, Grant Hart clearly skipped it. As early as 1984 he’d recorded landmark, Quadrophenia-esque double-set Zen Arcade with Minneapolis hardcore trailblazers Hüsker Dü, while 1991’s equally complex time-travel epic The Last Days Of Pompeii remains his most satisfying post-Hüskers waxing. Hart’s most anticipated release in two decades, The Argument features 20 tracks primarily based upon John Milton’s Paradise Lost and an unpublished manuscript for a mooted William Burroughs sci-fi novel.
Personally, I’ve always been more partial to Grant Hart’s songs in Hüsker Dü; he had a natural knack for melodic pop/rock that hinted at him being the more successful of that band’s two songwriters post-breakup. However, it never seemed as if Hart wanted that kind of career, instead opting to create eclectic albums that impress and frustrate all at once while his former bandmate Bob Mould rode the alternative rock boom to relative fame and glory. Even now, with Mould riding high on an album that actively recalls his past work with Sugar, Hart is keeping at it with his latest confounding release, The Argument.
As one third of Minneapolis hardcore evolutionists Hüsker Dü, Grant Hart was partly responsible for some of the best albums of the 1980s, their pioneering Beatles/Byrds-meet-punk sound later cited as a major influence by both Pixies and Nirvana. But with the honourable exception of his 1989 debut, Intolerance, his solo output has been frustratingly erratic and self-indulgent. The news that his first release in four years weighs in at 74 minutes and is a concept album inspired by Milton's Paradise Lost hardly inspires confidence, then.
Grant Hart’s post-HÃ¼sker DÃ¼ career has been so sporadic over the past decade that it’s easy sometimes to forget how much he added to the progenitive alt rockers’ repertoire. If Bob Mould’s songs were testy at best and downright vitriolic at full force, Hart always approached songwriting with wide eyes and a brighter outlook more informed by the hippy dippy vibes of ’60s counterculture. So it’s little surprise that The Argument, Hart’s follow-up to 2009’s Hot Wax and just his third solo record since 1999, is generously sprinkled with the singer’s sugary pop sensibilities.
Filtering John Milton’s epic 17th century poem, Paradise Lost, through the twisted, sci-fi scope of William S. Burroughs, can be a challenge daunting enough for even well-versed, pipe smoking literary scholars, to say nothing of your typical musician. But throughout Grant Hart’s long musical career, from his groundbreaking days as one-half of Hüsker Dü’s seminal songwriting team alongside Bob Mould, to his experimental solo efforts of the past few decades, through his inventive but often overlooked work with Nova Mob, Hart has repeatedly proven that he isn’t your typical musician.
Grant Hart The Argument (Domino) Hüsker Dü was a partnership or a rivalry depending on your POV. Two restless Midwestern auteurs, charismatic control freak Bob Mould and hardcore melodic Grant Hart, stoked a competition during the trio's legendary run in the Eighties that guaranteed the absence of a reunion tour even 30 years later. Mould secured a luminescent solo career afterward, while Hart remained largely absent, save for a lot of brooding interviews.
It's long been said that the Devil has the best tunes and, as evidenced by this, the latest solo album from the former Hüsker Dü drummer and co-songwriter, Grant Hart, this adage is grounded in fact. A concept album based on John Milton's epic Paradise Lost via a reworking by William S. Burroughs may sound like the kind of work dreamt up by Pete Townshend, an artist seemingly incapable of writing a song without tying it to some grandiose conceit, but in the hands of Grant Hart, The Argument proves to be one of the most intriguing records of the year thus far.