The alt-rock legend's latest solo album stands as his most ambitious work yet.
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 with most of Hart’s work, The Argument is an ambitious album that is often brilliant when it isn’t tripping over itself.
Modesty in inspiration is not something that Grant Hart is familiar with, given that he turned everyday personal issues into howling melodrama on some of his best songs. For The Argument, though, Hart turned to an imposing source of inspiration: John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The album seeks to dramatize the events of Milton’s epic poem, from Lucifer’s war against God to the fall of Man. For the most part, Hart seems up to the challenge before him. Moments like the lo-fi charm of “Morningstar” show that Hart hasn’t lost his gifts for melody, and his current singing voice -- which eerily recalls David Bowie while sounding mostly better than current David Bowie -- is well-suited for the grandiosity of the project. Hart’s voice has always had an authority of some kind, but here it’s commanding as we’ve never heard him before.
However, with a project this ambitious, there are bound to be a few slip-ups, and The Argument is certainly not without its share of filler. As with any concept record, some of The Argument’s 20 tracks serve little purpose beyond advancing the narrative. Songs like the plodding “I Am Death” work in the context of the album’s story arc, but they don’t seem to have much of a future beyond that. Elsewhere, the ukelele-driven “Underneath the Apple Tree” is enjoyable, but the whimsical arrangement only serves to highlight just how slight the song is. Also, at 20 songs, The Argument can be a bit of a slog at times. In his quest to tell an interesting, rewarding story through music, Hart appears at times to have bitten off more than he can chew.
Still, even a weak Grant Hart song is worth hearing, especially after four years of silence. What's more, the best of The Argument stands up alongside the best work of Hart's storied career. Aside from “Morningstar,” moments like “Glorious” (which could easily fit onto a late-period Hüsker Dü album) and the one-two ending punch of “Run for the Wilderness” and “For Those Too High Aspiring” demonstrate how effortlessly skilled Hart is as a songwriter. Considering the attention paid to Hüsker Dü (and Bob Mould) in recent years, it’s not surprising that Hart would make an album like The Argument as a way to assert his importance as a solo artist. Still, as often as the album works, I can’t help but wish that Hart would have dialed his ambitions back a bit and create a truly great album on the back of his natural talent.