I can’t lie. I love this album. Never mind that it’s Grant Hart, who never fails to deliver interesting and complete pieces of work when he releases something new – which is not frequently. It’s the idea of someone taking Milton’s Paradise Lost and Burroughs’ Lost Paradise and turning it into a cohesive piece of music. The phrase “concept album” is something of a dirty word since the ’70’s, but bands that appeared in the punk and post-punk eras managed to resurrect the idea with some success, both artistically and critically. Mr. Hart’s first former outlet, who I do not need to mention, did this to universal acclaim with 1984’s landmark Zen Arcade. And during his early ’90’s stint with Nova Mob, he delivered the highly melodic epic The Last Days Of Pompeii. This is a style which Mr. Hart excels at.
And it is with The Argument that he shines. Lyrics, melody, form and delivery all meet at the same time and place. This is also something of a sonic change for Grant Hart, in both the production and his vocals. A less-treble sound – much more dry and (at times) almost claustrophobic, which works perfectly with the song structures; gone is the trademark breathy rasp in his singing, replaced by controlled emotion.
The album takes this listener through peaks and valleys; there is a soundscape that carries the piece, start to finish. It may be an inappropriate was to phrase it, but there is a keyboard motif that runs the length of the music, underneath and in between songs as a link, which sounds like a deranged merry-go-round. “Out Of Chaos” is the opening spoken word piece – a verse from Milton; “Morningstar” is a sweet, tight, rhythmic track that reminds me of something that would fit on 154; I should say right here that this album – to me – seems very informed by Wire in its minimalism and ’60’s-type garage and rockabilly. “I Will Never See My Love” is gentle; with a celestial backing and a heartfelt tag line of “I will never see my love”. “I Am Death” is a strident, militaristic-tempo shopping list of what Death might say (!); “Sin” is a rollicking kind of ’60’s-style number, a twisted Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs, if you like. “Golden Chain” has rich harmonies, intertwined reedy organ, acoustic guitar and xylophone in waltz time – completely reminiscent of his own classic “She Floated Away”. “Shine Shine Shine”, for me, is a highlight – a pure pop masterwork with its ’60’s vibe; “War In Heaven” is another use of sound collages and spoken tape loops from battle. “Glorious” is the most Grant Hart-like track and the standout – melodic, sing-song, harmonies, catchy with straight guitar/bass/drums/keyboards.
There are 20 tracks on this album; a lot to absorb and digest. Which is how it should be. It’s good for the soul. And make no mistake – The Argument is good for your soul. And your mind. Easily one of this year’s best.