An argument for Grant Hart's The Argument
Artwork by Chris Strouth; based upon a tintype by Andrew Moxom
Makes No Sense At All captures the visions, ramblings, and memories of Chris Strouth, a Twin Cities-bred master of music, film, and everything else.
Concept records get a bad rap, a really bad rap. I blame it on Yes. On paper, something that mixes 17th-century blank verse and the crown prince of the beats seems like it could easily go awry. Impressively, Grant Hart's latest opus of an album, The Argument, doesn't. It feels more like a postmodern opera, creating a universe unto itself with specific rules that control the proceedings. Such idiosyncratic rules make things like Genesis, Björk, and Sigur Rós, work and also make them hell to put on a mixtape.
As the drummer/vocalist in Hüsker Dü, Hart, as well as guitarist/vocalist Bob Mould and bassist Greg Norton, has already earned his place in the Cooperstown of Punk -- which will never actually exist because the bathrooms would be a total liability. And if you don't know Hüsker, then you have made me very sad, and you have made a baby unicorn cry, so way to go. But even considering all of that, on this complex new record The Argument he sets a bar so high that Godzilla could easily limbo underneath it.
Just to recap, everyone, we should remember Hüsker Dü as the great American hardcore band. They took ideas from the Dead Kennedys and the Ramones and turned them into high art. The results were records that were smart and funny, and with heartbreaking depth. Krist Novoselic has been quoted as saying Nirvana's musical style was "nothing new; Hüsker Dü did it before us." In fact the title of this column is one of my most favorite songs of theirs. I really wanted to use a Grant song, but damn it "Charity, Chastity, Promise and Hope" didn't have the same ring to it.
Full disclosure: Grant is a friend of mine and I am truly honored to be able to call him that. There are very few people I think that are kissed by that multi-headed hydra of genius; in my mind he is the William Blake (18th-century poet, painter, and mystic) of our age. He helped to develop the language of popular punk music. It's a language that was so shocking, yet so easily accessed, that we don't even realize it as the radio plays everything from Metallica to the Indigo Girls. Genius isn't easy, and it shouldn't be. It takes a touch of madness to see the unseen but it takes an incredible intellect to make that unseen into something tangible, and even more to make that into something relatable to the human experience.
Knowing Grant has made me a better person. He makes you want to do your best -- not to impress anyone, but just because pushing the boundaries is the right thing to do.
Artwork by Chris Strouth
The Argument is based on an unpublished short story by William Burroughs called "Lost Paradise," and John Milton's epic poem "Paradise Lost." And by epic poem I mean epic poem. It's more than 10,000 lines of verse over 12 books, which for those keeping score at home is two more than the Harry Potter series. The record itself concentrates on the fall of Lucifer through to the fall of man storyline from the Milton. This would be an ambitious project in anyone's hands, but he fact that it's from an architect of hardcore makes it all the more mind-blowing.
On just a pure musical level, it's incredibly enjoyable. In truth, it's the kind of record I always hoped that he would make, one that transcends genre and style.
Stylistically it's a blend of many sounds and styles from all over the history of indie, but the end result feels more like a classic rock record -- not in style, but in tenor. This is a record with weight. Remember when you first started listening to records seriously? When you had that first moment while listening to a record that just shifted your viewpoint? When you had to listen to things in a different way, you had lost your innocence and suddenly Styx just wasn't profound anymore. Not that you won't ever listen to Styx again, but it's just nostalgia when you do. It is the difference between Rolex and Timex. They both tell time, they just tell them in such different ways. One feels permanent and one feels more disposable.
The brilliance of The Argument is that it's accessible. Even if you know nothing of William Burroughs or John Milton, you're still going to get it. It's good vs. evil, it's about questioning the ultimate nature of things, and understanding that sometimes mistakes work out for the better. That the better part of perfection understands the flaw. Good art should make you think, and great art should make you discuss. We live in an era where it's too easy to forget that rock records can be great art. That The Velvet Underground and Nico album packs a similar cultural wallop to Marcel DuChamp's urinal hung in a gallery titled "Fountain" -- really even more since VU went on to inspire the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia.
High art can get a bad rap in popular culture, not unlike Brussels sprouts. It's a thing you're supposed to do because they're good for you. Or, if your house was like my house growing up, they were a threat and/or a punishment. Then sometime in my 30s I had them roasted in sea salt and they instantly became my favorite food ever. In most households high art tends to be a destination. Depending on the situation, it's a rare one at that -- the yearly trip to a museum and/or symphony. It's that dichotomy that sometimes make fine art feel like work. With this record, Hart snowplows through that notion.
The tough thing about the Twin Cities is that we tend as a populace never to appreciate what we have here, that is until it is moved to somewhere else. The more accessible someone seems to be, the lower their presumed value. Grant Hart is extremely accessible. He goes to shows, he wants to hang out, and most importantly he wants to engage. It is another similarity to one of his long-term friends and primary cultural sources of The Argument, William Burroughs. He too was fairly accessible, and as pretentious as this sounds, a prophet of the people, not a rock star hidden away from the populace.
It's definitely an odd economic puzzle. Living in the Twin Cities -- especially in the '80s and '90s -- was like living in a field of diamonds. There were so many you forgot they had value, and that sort of makes sense. After all, how valuable could the Replacements be if you kept stepping over one of them who had fallen asleep on the floor of the CC Club? In fairness, that might not have actually happened, but still you get the gist.
I don't get surprised often when listening to records. There are maps, and as a rule once a musician develops one, they tend to follow it, sometimes making new maps for different periods. Think Dylan's folk hero era, Dylan's electric era, Dylan Christian era, etc. For better or worse, Grant's records are each maps unto themselves; some are fairly simple lines over colored masses and then there is this one. It's highly detailed with cartouches everywhere, but none that distract from the journey, and it is a hell of a journey.
Pick up Grant Hart's The Argument here.
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