When I think of Grant Hart, I always gravitate toward "2541."
The melancholic first song on his first post-Hüsker Dü solo EP, also called 2541, exists somewhere between Velvet Underground-caliber shambling and faded psychedelic jangle, with needling acoustic riffs, an echoing vocal, and a surging chorus.
The number is a reference to 2541 Nicollet Ave., the headquarters of Twin/Tone Records and Nicollet Studios. Hüsker Dü did their business at two offices next door: Bob Mould recounted in See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody that Hart had one of these spaces to himself, "with his mysterious safe in the corner to do artwork for Hüsker Dü and other Twin Cities bands."
When "2541" emerged in fall 1988, months after Hüsker Dü's breakup, it sounded like a matter-of-fact farewell to the band, and lines such as "Now everything is done/ Everything's in boxes/ At twenty-five forty-one " certainly bolster this interpretation. But that song isn’t simply an elegy for a band—or a time and place. In fact, the writing of "2541" pre-dates the split by years.
In See a Little Light, Mould recalls Hart bringing the song to the band for consideration during the recording of 1985's New Day Rising:
We played through it a couple of times, and after a moment I said, "Grant, I don't know about this one. It's the same riff and melody as a Dream Syndicate song that's out right now." The song was called "2541." Later I realized it was probably about a failed relationship he'd had, that it carried a lot of emotional weight for him at the time, and that it was one of the best songs he'd ever written. But at the time, I just wasn't putting it together. I only meant to point out something. I think it really hurt him, and he think he viewed me as an adversary from then on. Years later I felt bad about it, and I often wondered if it might have been the beginning of the end.
Mould then goes on to recount a 1980 incident where Hart quit Hüsker Dü after being criticized for his performance at a show. The band members hashed things out and kept going, but Mould saw the cracks in hindsight: "I think the '2541' incident changed our quiet peace, broke that four-year truce, and ignited a passive-aggressive conflict between us." (Hart was asked about this "2541" passage in a 2012 Village Voice interview, and gave an oblique response.)
That Hart released the song so soon after the breakup could certainly be seen as a passive-aggressive move, especially if the incident was as wounding as Mould describes. But the genius of "2541" is that it's not cutting, bitter, or angry—it devastates because of Hart's unbridled sadness over losing a home, both emotionally and physically. He recalls joyful memories of the place's physical attributes ("Big windows to let in the sun") and the ways it became a cozy shared space ("We had to keep the stove on all night long/ So the mice wouldn't freeze") that was healing ("You put our names on the mailbox/ And I put everything else in the past").
This joy was short-lived. As "2541" talks about those boxes and things ending, that old feeling of loneliness and resignation returns: "And it'll probably not be the last time/ I'll have to be out by the first." On the EP version of the song, Hart sings these lines in an even-keeled voice. But on a different, electric guitar-heavier version of "2541" that appeared on his 1989 solo LP, Intolerance, Hart is more emotive on these lines—his voice pitches upward, defiant and anguished. Both deliveries are effective, as each version of the song segues into a coda with Hart howling the address; although cathartic, the deep wells of sadness evident in these moments cut to the bone.
As a lyricist, Hart's economy was awe-inspiring—think of "Never Talking to You Again," and its dig, "I'd put you down where you belong/ But I'm never talking to you again." But "2541" works so well because it pairs minute details and observations with primal, instinctual vulnerability. Anyone who's ever been shattered by a dissolving relationship—romantic, friendship or otherwise—or experienced an unexpected, sharp loss can relate to the song's feelings of helplessness and despair. When something so comfortable suddenly becomes painful and unfamiliar, the shock is profound. "2541" captures that indescribable feeling.
No wonder the song has endured, and in many forms. Hart of course played it during his solo sets. But the Go-Betweens' Robert Forster amplified the Velvets influence on his version, found on 1995's I Had a New York Girlfriend, and Marshall Crenshaw covered the song on his 1996 album Miracle of Science. In fact, the song has remained in Crenshaw's setlist to this day. Hart's legacy has many twists and turns, but "2541" remains one of its high points, a profound moment because of its elegant simplicity.