What if both your parents died the same year? And what if that same year your home, which has been in the family for over 100 years, burns down? And what if while you’re dealing with all this loss, your former band mate (Bob Mould) releases a tell all autobiography where he not only persecutes you and embellishes your use of heroin, but he also takes time to mock your now dead mother?
And what if you were once friends with William S. Burroughs? And what if while you are dealing with all this turmoil, you are bestowed with an unfinished Burroughs space odyssey adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost called Lost Paradise? And what if this manuscript inspires you to create a 20-song album about the battle between Heaven and Hell?
That would be pretty awesome, right?
As if by fate, while at his lowest of lows, Grant Hart has found his redemption through his recent concept album, The Argument. Using Milton’s narrative of Satan’s return to Earth as his inspiration, Hart is able to convey his own parallel journey to Hell and back. Intermixed between songs about Adam and Eve and fallen angels, Hart sneaks in his own story of loss in a way that is subtle and naturally intertwined into the fabric of this 20-song opus. On “Underneath the Apple Tree” he sings an old-timey mandolin folk ditty from the point of view of Satan’s snake, an ironic response to Mould’s accusations that Hart was the evil of all evils within Husker Du. While some tracks show Hart having fun with biblical characters, “I Will Never See My Home Again” is a personal revelation about the loss of his own, long-time home. It tells both the literal story of his loss, yet fits within the storyline of Paradise Lost.
“I Will Never See My Home Again”:
An album based on a classic piece of literature steeped in religious imagery may sound like pretty heady stuff, and the idea of it being executed over 20-songs may seem quite daunting. However, Hart is able to soften the enormity of the concept by conveying most of it through short, three-to-five minute pop songs that could easily thrive on their own. “Morningstar” is the standout track of the album, a lo-fi gem soaked in cheery organs and set to a breezy beat. Not only is much of the album pretty upbeat, some of the tracks are pure joy, pulled straight from the 1950s. “So Far From Heaven” is heavenly echoes of Bobby Darin, and “Letting Me Out” is a rollicking romp, Buddy Holly begging for his release from Hell from one joyous verse to the next.
“Letting Me Out”:
For an album immersed in the idea of good vs. evil, Hart takes care to ensure that the joyous songs are counterweighted by tracks that are dark and eerie. The title track resembles a Gregorian chant as voices overlap each other in a hellish argument that takes the “The Row, Row, Row Your Boat” round straight down the river Hades. Hart presents this quarrel between demons and angels in 10 syllable verses, an allusion to Milton’s classic poem. At other times, Hart resembles the morose David Bowie of the 70s. “Awake, Arise!” could easily be the evil step-brother of Bowie’s classic “Man that Sold the World.”
You would think that with an album so audacious that the production would be over the top, orchestral swells abound, but Hart has stayed true to his lo-fi roots on The Argument. The songs are still as grandiose as the project requires, yet the production is warm and personal, sounding like Hart recorded the entire album on a four track. I can’t help but imagine him in his old house, recording these tracks within its now ghostly confines.
When I listen to Hart’s intimate, hands-on approach to recording, I can’t help but think of his former band mate, Bob Mould, whose most recent albums have reeked of over-production and even auto-tuning (gasp!). Maybe Mould has made a bigger name for himself since the break-up of Husker Du 25 years ago, and maybe his catalog of over a dozen albums in that time trumps Hart’s out-put twofold. But when it comes down to quality vs. quantity, Hart has come out the victor despite all that he has been through. In the battle of good vs. evil, Hart’s The Argument is proof that there is still hope for the little guy.