If you are seeking an objective, unbiased review of Grant Hart’s latest work, you will not find it here. Nor will you find any dredging up of ancient Hüsker Dü history, or comparisons between current works and Hüsker Dü material, save one: the rhythmic hook in the song “Golden Chain” is very similar to the opening riff of “She Floated Away,” but that is rhythm only; the chord progression is different, or at least, it sounds so to me.
Out of Chaos, indeed. It is common knowledge that Hart has gone through some awfully tough times in the last few years, beginning with a fire that destroyed his home. In spite of this, and the loss of his beloved mother that same winter, and a number of setbacks involving the album itself, he persevered, and if I may presume, it seems a lot of pain and grief got worked out in the making of this album. One hears this in the shimmering eloquence of the final product. The album was a full four years in the making, and worth every single minute of waiting for it. With few exceptions (there are guest musicians on a couple of tracks, playing drums and stand-up bass), Hart played every instrument and sang every vocal. Remember that as you listen to the work in its entirety, and prepare to be awed.
It begins with “Out of Chaos,” which I can only describe as partially melodic layers overlapping one another, and it sounds like the beginning of time, each sound representing some element waiting to be unified with another. There is only darkness, and these whirling sounds within the void, and then Hart delivers the Prologue with confident authority. “Of man’s first disobedience…” When he proclaims, “Sing, heavenly muse,” one knows something of great magnitude is forthcoming.
“Morningstar” is Lucifer, an angel of light, beloved of God until he gets a little too full of himself, gathers his minions, and all are unceremoniously flung from Heaven. But before that, there is a brief happiness as they rejoice in their splendour: “purest of all the light, highest in orders bright.” The melody is swallowed up in a cacophony of sounds as the Morningstar and his minions fall to the lake of fire.
Milton says this fall took nine days and nights, and Hart gives us a good idea of what those nine days and nights must have been like as the transitional chaos gives way to “Awake, Arise,” Lucifer’s rallying cry to the others who have fallen with him.
In Milton’s poem, none of Lucifer’s companions are any too keen on wreaking the kind of havoc he proposes, and choose instead to lie on the shores of the fiery lake, “forever fallen.”
Hart gives us a Lucifer who is truly a force to contend with, his voice gaining power throughout the song and up to the final battle cry, which reaches an almost deafening crescendo by the last statement: “awake, arise, or be forever fallen.” It is part growl, part scream, part howl, as befits a creature who has spent the last nine days and nights falling through the sky, and is positively enraged by the turn of events.
Almost as if he realizes that one catches more flies with honey than vinegar, Lucifer’s tone softens as he tells of all the havoc they can wreak on God and His new creations “if we have the will.” There is a playful, almost carnival-like sound to the music – an accordion or concertina, perhaps? – and an interesting meter rather like something Stravinsky might have employed – 5/4 time, or something similar – so the music shifts back and forth between a solid duple meter and a triple meter. Such a rhythmic device builds a sort of limp into the overall texture, which again reminds us that, despite the “fun” Lucifer is proposing, and tempting as it sounds, he and his minions are pretty beat up from that fall. “We can raise great capitols if we have the will,” he urges, sounding a bit like David Bowie in the Thin White Duke era, and one can imagine the others shaking their heads and rolling their eyes. They don’t have the will. Only Lucifer has the testicular fortitude for the task, and by the end of the song determines that, “I alone must go alone, this mission to fulfill.”
Also alone, he reflects and laments the loss of Heaven in soaring, poignant tones: “I must carry on alone, and I will never see my home.” I cannot help drawing a personal parallel here. Hart, too, is carrying on alone, and will never again see the home he knew and loved, and hearing the pain of that loss in the vocals does inspire empathy for the character he is portraying, and for himself as well.
Moving on, Lucifer encounters Death and Sin, both of whom are much more horrible in the poem itself. They are nasty enough in Hart’s work, though, and Death is terrifying as Hart presents him. He snarls and spits out his words, and the Hounds of Hell provide an effective backing chorus. “I take anything I want, but I’m not angry,” he assures us, and later, “I bear no malice, I carry no hate.” Oh, really? The truth will out, though, and towards the end: “I am horrid, I am grim, I’m undaunted, I am fear, I am wrath, I am fatal, I’m unwanted.” That’s more like it, and “I am waste, I am torment” clinches it. There is no melody in the verses, only in the chorus: “I am your lifelong friend.” It is a fearsome laundry list of attributes chanted against tense, driving background music.
It’s actually a relief to leave Death and pay a visit to Sin, who sounds a bit like a cabaret singer as she seductively lists the Seven Deadly Sins and makes at least some of them sound like they might be fun to commit. The refrain, “I’ll eat right through your soul,” reminds us, repeatedly, that there is a catch, and what feels so good might not be so nice.
Still, Lucifer has to bargain with them to let him escape from hell, and in a bouncy, Buddy Holly-esque tune replete with Hart’s mighty, ferocious drumming, he describes what they can surely expect in the near future, if they will just open the gate and set him free. “And I tell you, there isn’t a doubt, you can let more in by letting me out,” he promises.
We can fully believe at this point that Lucifer is one-hundred-percent villain, and are ready to be on guard against him, but then he surprises us with another painfully vulnerable moment as he ponders his future. “Is the sky the limit for me?” he sings, in a soft, fragile voice. “I only wish to love you, for you to notice me. Now I dread how limited I can be.” He has professed to hate God up to this point, but a number of years ago, there was another song that mourned about there being a “thin line between love and hate.” Indeed. “Is the Sky the Limit” echoes this thought without using those exact words. It is all too easy to have sympathy for this devil.
“Golden Chain” describes one of Milton’s unique astronomical suppositions. The earth is suspended from the sun by a “golden chain,” and Hell is somewhere beneath the earth, while Heaven is above the sun. Sun and earth hang in the middle, chained together. Lucifer passes this en route to earth, and the song seems an incidental piece of “traveling music.” It brings Lucifer to Uriel, who is guarding the new creation. Lucifer, able to shape-shift and disguise himself easily, presents himself as an angel. Uriel is suspicious. Something doesn’t seem quite right. “Are you one of those angels who attempted to rebel?” he asks. “What’s a little angel doing so far from Heaven?”
One can almost see Lucifer rolling his cherubic eyes in an attempt to look innocent as he whistles a simple tune and evades the question.
Poor Adam and Eve don’t stand a chance. Their naiveté comes through loud and clear in “Shine, Shine, Shine.” The sweet, starry-eyed wonder and love Hart conveys is amazing. What endearing purity, and this from a man past fifty who has seen some damn hard times? There are younger people out there, whose lives have been easier, yet they are bitter, cynical, and jaded. I’m sure Hart has his moments, as we all do, but he leaves that behind in the dust when he embraces a piece like this one, and brings it to life.
It’s all well and good to be happy, but an angel comes to warn Adam to take care. Trouble is brewing. The music sounds sinister, ominous, with lots of minor chords and sharp drumming. He then describes the events that led to the Fall: the “War in Heaven.” Here, Hart employs the long, slow crescendo technique of which he has always been such a master. (“Roller Rink” from “Intolerance” and “Little Nemo” from “Good News for Modern Man” instantly come to mind for comparison.) It’s a really effective piece: noisy and unsettling: gunfire, sirens, spoken phrases repeated over and over, such as “come on, fire” and “I just drove over a body.” What a relief it is when the “Glorious” Son of Man appears to fight, and lightens the musical mood!
As upbeat a song as “Glorious” is, it’s deceiving. The lyrics aren’t quite as cheerful as the music accompanying them. “They call me Prince of Peace; they’re halfway right. Stand clear, the Son of God is here to fight!” Did not Christ once say in the Gospel, “I come not to bring peace, but a sword?”
Meanwhile, Lucifer has been making a lot of mischief with poor Eve, haunting her in dreams with visions of becoming a goddess, if she will just disobey God’s will and eat from the fatal Tree. When Hart sings, “Ooh, I can feel the fire,” it seems as if Eve is drawn to that fire, believing it might be an exciting thing to touch, even though she fears it. One hears the conflict.
Enter Lucifer, in the form of a snake. Hart accompanies this song, “Underneath the Apple Tree,” with ukulele and a chorus of kazoos, and has recorded the whole thing in such a way that it sounds like an old-time vaudeville tune recorded on a 78 rpm record. (I think there are a few of us who still remember such things?) “Who would ever want to know a snake like me?” he asks, and again, one gets a sense of innocently-rolling eyes and batting eyelashes, even though snakes don’t have eyelashes and probably aren’t able to roll their eyes. It’s coyly seductive. Who wouldn’t take a bite of a pretty, red apple, persuaded in such a charming manner?
The piéce de resistance, in my opinion, is the title track, “The Argument.” Clocking in at nearly six minutes, this is an antiphonal recitativ, and though the vocals are done solely by Hart, one is very much aware that two distinct characters are dialoguing back and forth: sometimes Eve and the Snake, and sometimes Adam and Eve. There is a great deal of clever word play, and all throughout, the final words and first words of each line overlap, and the ideas flow seamlessly into one another. Hart’s delivery is intense, theatrical, especially with the delivery of lines like, “Snake, why do you tempt me; why the bother?” and “Stake me to a mountain if I’m lying.” This piece, too, builds to a crescendo as we move towards the expulsion from the garden.
Despite the grimness of the scenario, there is almost a sense of exuberance in “Run for the Wilderness.” Fear is mentioned a great deal, and yet – there is a place to run! All is not lost – is it? Adventure awaits – something new – and Hart’s vocals, especially the high counter-melody, soar into the heavens. Maybe this wilderness isn’t such a bad place after all, and even though we’re mortal now, and will die someday, there is still hope of finding some good in it all. The words don’t say this, but the music does. It is true, isn’t it, that sometimes the sound of the music speaks to our hearts more clearly than the lyrics, and will override their meaning?
The moral of the story, “For Those Too High Aspiring” speaks to all of us, does it not? Life is absurd: “what a laugh, what a laugh.” Yes. We might as well laugh. It sure as hell beats crying, yes?
“And all was for an apple, an apple that he took, as clerkes finden written in their book,” as an old English carol says.
It may have appeared, early on, that Hart had bitten off more than he could chew with this project, and he remarked to me a few years ago, “Once I get through chewing it up and spitting it out, I don’t know how much like Milton it is anymore.”
Well, Milton is Milton, and Grant Hart is Grant Hart, and as I had hoped, he honored the one, remained true to the other, and also paid tribute to his old friend, William S. Burroughs, in the process. I call that a job well and brilliantly done, and look forward to whatever musical endeavours the future may bring.
Jehan St. Marc
17 August 2013