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 collisions, one in which the progressive punk trio were rebelling against the louder-faster constraints of the era while Grant Hart was chafing behind his drum kit, confined by a dynamic in which frontman Bob Mould was never going to surrender equal songwriting space.
With The Argument—an ambitious and literate double album—Hart brings forth the spectacle to further rewrite history, a one-man Zen Arcade where he plays virtually all the instruments and writes all the songs. Rather than reveal what might have been had the situations in Hüsker Dü been reversed, Hart instead falls into an old pattern and cedes creative control to another overbearing partner—John Milton—composing the concept album as a garage-rock opera based on the English poet’s Paradise Lost. Where The Argument falters, the critique of Milton offered by the Ur-Text of modern Greek cinema obtains: “He’s a little bit long winded, he doesn’t translate very well into our generation, and his jokes are terrible.”
Paradise Lost’s celestial struggle between Good and Evil then becomes a temporal struggle between good and lousy, with Hart waging a battle between his best and worst instincts. Fighting excess, sketchy incompletion, and forces greater than himself, Hart has always been able to rely on three triumphant maneuvers—the keyboard-drenched stomper, the rousing acoustic anthem and the heaven-ascendant ballad—and within the sprawl of The Argument Hart flashes definitive versions of each.
Teetering on Question Mark keys, “Morningstar” launches forth in the tradition of “All Of My Senses,” the shamanistic lead track from Intolerance (Hart’s solo debut and still the high-water mark of the post-Hüskers cannon). Double-timed drums and a hiccupping, Richie Valens hook drive the hard-strummed sing-along “Letting Me Out,” while “I Will Never See My Home” builds from pensive percussion and a yearning synth line, the melody peaking as hope becomes harder to sustain. With a zippered xylophone, cathartic cymbals and an uncanny chorus—“radiate, radiate away”—album centerpiece “Is The Sky The Limit” beautifully alludes to “My My, Hey Hey” and joins “A Letter From Anne Marie” among Hart’s most transcendent recordings.
Through and through, the delights of The Argument truly are bountiful: a resurrected Manzarek lick here and a snatch of ballpark organ there; the polished Candle Apple Grey rocker “Glorious” and the Warehouse déjà vu of “(It Was A) Most Disturbing Dream”; the wistful whistle solo on “So Far From Heaven,” a spit-curled track that began appearing in Hart’s live sets as far back as 2009.
Oh, but the inevitable fall of man
Time and again, that damned Milton leads Hart astray—and where The Argument is bad, it’s epically so. The very best tracks grapple with eternal themes of love, fear, suffering and the transmigration of the soul, with the overarching narrative largely irrelevant; the low points, however, take the dramatic framework and hit you upside the holy head. Hart opens The Argument with a nasal, noodling, spoken-word excerpt from Milton’s verse, an “In the beginning
” of chaos and the Heavens that veers closer to a goof on “Jesus Was Way Cool.” Though Hart can effectively tap into a variety of vocal registers—from a plaintive croon to a vibrating La-Z-Boy warble—handling the storyline’s multiple roles he repeatedly affects theatrical pitches that rarely suit anyone. “I Am Death”—a spotlight turn for The Grim Reaper—sounds like the Dead Milkmen doing a parody of morbidly pretentious art rock, while Hart takes up a jaunty ukulele and delivers The Snake’s big number, “Underneath The Apple Tree,” like a mugging Leon Redbone.
Hüsker Dü’s two double-albums (Zen Arcade and Warehouse: Songs and Stories) both allowed for listeners to dip in and dip out depending on mood and taste, and though the more broadly Broadway cuts on The Argument are easy enough to skip, those tracks can’t simply be written off as artistic stretches or noble experimentation. In the creative battle of The Argument, Hart frequently loses sight of the fact that his own soul is among those at stake, rarely bringing Good and Evil down to where it lives. Rather than personalize with specifics or pinpoint the material’s modern relevance, Hart settles for hollering out the seven deadlies in the bluntly simplistic “Sin.” Pride, gluttony, envy and sloth are in evidence throughout The Argument, but from the man who once wrote “The Girl Who Lived On Heaven Hill” and “Never Talking To You Again,” lust and anger—rock and fucking roll!—are distressingly absent. Other than the background noise of combat choppers during the instrumental “War In Heaven,” Hart leaves the principal conflict in a florid and impersonal Long Ago: this man who shoveled dirt on William Burroughs’ grave and indulged his own nocturnal share of needle drugs and fornication dares no more seductive and carnivorous vision of temptation than Vaudeville evil and a Godspell Satan.
Those failings, however, continue to make Hart a compelling figure and he addresses duality and humanity within the title track’s hinged diptych. “The Argument”’s dual lyrical lines entangle as a pulpit organ faces down pagan bells, a worthy showdown where Hart competes on the same poetic plane as Milton’s original verse. It’s a doomed battle, but to his great credit Hart fights it anyway, ultimately bringing everything he has to muster on the glorious closing track “For Those Too High Aspiring.” At once stomper, anthem and heaven-ascendant, a piano melody interlocks with a toe-tapping acoustic; it’s all there and it all works, dirty electric chords weaving in and out of Freewheelin’ Dylan harmonica and UFO frequencies, the type of impossible nugget any garage-revivalist not named Mikal Cronin would offer as their very finest, crowned by a clever and clear-eyed view of both the preceding 19 tracks and his entire 30+ years as a recording artist:
“For those too high aspiring
Here’s to you!
you bit off more than you could chew
now you know
exactly how far you could go.”