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As a founding member and half of the songwriting engine that drove Hüsker Dü to his maverick solo work Grant Hart has cut a singular path across the last three decades. And it is with great confidence that we say he's made an album to rival even his old band's greatest achievements. An epic based on John Milton's Paradise Lost. Hart distills its essence into pop rock nuggets that flit through the history of 20th century music from Cole Porter to Buddy Holly to David Bowie to, ... even Hüsker Dü. Yes, it's ambitious as hell and yes, he pulls it off.
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I can appreciate the talents of both musicians, but for my money, and musical tastes, Hart is the superior songwriter, and on this latest album he deftly shows the range of his talents, both as tunesmith and lyricist. In the liner notes, Hart says that this album was inspired by "Lost Paradise" by William Burroughs and "Paradise Lost" by John Milton. So, yeah, there is more than a bit of literary inspiration to this sprawling album. As other reviewers have commented, these songs are indeed an ambitious, diverse bunch, ranging from his trademark melodic rockers to tunes with a slight psychedelic edge and even songs that remind me of a 1920s barbershop quartet.
If you've enjoyed other albums by Grant Hart, his band Nova Mob, or even the old Husker Du stuff, you should find most, if not all, of the songs on this album a most satisfying listening experience.
"Morningstar" is a wonderful pop song, expertly crafted. I would put it up there alongside his best Husker work. "Awake, Arise" sets the tone for the meat of the CD. Along the way, we get great tracks such as "Letting Me Out", "If We Have the Will" and "Golden Chain." The entire CD builds up to the amazing "Run for the Wilderness" and then the final track, a great closer, "For Those Too High Aspiring" brings us back to earth.
Buy this now, tell your friends, and then tell them again!
Next, so you know where I stand, I believe these to be indisputable facts:
1. Hüsker Dü and The Replacements are the two most important rock bands of the past 32 years. That every single band that picked up a guitar and rocked post 1987 owes everything to these two bands. They saved rock and roll at a time when even punk had completely lost its edge and become new wave. So that is the regard in which I hold the members of these two bands.
2. Just as the Beatles had two great singer/songwriters in Lennon and McCarthey, Hüsker Dü had Mould and Hart. There is no Hüsker Dü without Grant Hart. He is as important to the band as Mould, and just as good a songwriter. As for their post-Hüsker Dü careers, Hart might not have been as prolific, but he delivered "2541" and "The Main," which for me are the two best post-breakup songs.
Now, onto The Argument.
This is a vast, impressive work. Hardly a collection of pop tunes that you can play on your car's stereo system and listen to at leisure...at least not at first. In taking on a book most of us could not even get through the Cliff Notes on, Hart has given us a true rock opera, about good vs. evil, about heaven vs. hell, about lust and the snake in the garden. This is a post-punk rock bible, a "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" or "Tommy" for our day. But the first half dozen times through you need to listen. To absorb. To take in the grandeur of what he's accomplished. And only then you will find the pop songs. The rock songs. The songs to break your heart. Then you will begin to see the scope of "The Argument." Then you will begin to see the influences Hart wears proudly on his sleeves, from an almost polished version of the noise we came to love as Hüsker Dü fans to nods towards Dylan ("For Those Too High Aspiring" is probably my favorite track, sounding like a lost track Bob Dylan contributed to "Zen Arcade"), the Doors ("Golden Chain"), the Faces ("Shine, Shine, Shine"), Buddy Holly ("Letting Me Out"), doo wop ("So Far From Heaven"), anthem rock ("Glorious," which would make for a perfect very tongue-in-cheek Christian rock anthem), even a Rudy Vallée ukulele ditty ("Underneath the Apple Tree"), and yes, old Bowie (the brilliant title track). Hart is a walking history-of-music encyclopedia, and that knowledge shines through on every track.
The production is masterful. (The use of the beep from Sputnik on "Is the Sky the Limit" is a stroke of genius.) Hart's voice is powerful when it needs to be. Frail, almost cracked, when he wants to rip out your heart. The instrumentation is at times a cacophony of blessed noise pop and at other times brisk, clean, clear. There are moments when a track ends and you actually wish for a breather before what will assault you next.
To take on Milton's "Paradise Lost" might have seemed a fool's game for most musicians. But Grant Hart isn't like most musicians. He's probably one of the smartest men in rock & roll. And while this might have been a glorious gamble that ended badly, he's hit the jackpot. But no more so than the fans who get to experience this work of art.
Should you buy it? Well, I'll answer that question with a question: would you go see Van Gogh's "Starry Night" if it was in a gallery in your town? If the answer is yes. That you would have to see the genius in Van Gogh's swirls in person and for yourself. Then, yes, buy "The Argument." Masterpieces only come around every so often.
This might be the best thing hes ever done.
Ambitious,smart,diverse...... tunes you won't be able to get out of your head.