Milton’s Paradise Lost has inspired some of the most compelling literature of the last couple of centuries. The wild, virtuoso, god-stroking poetry of William Blake; the gothic, lyrical warnings of Shelley’s Frankenstein; even sections of Salman Rushdie’s jihad-inducing The Satanic Verses all look to the epic 1667 poem for thematic guidance.
Musically, however, Milton’s description of the corruption of Adam & Eve and Satan’s first stroll through humanity has tossed up far less salubrious homage – aside from providing the stern sex-oak that is Nick Cave with a couple of decades of lyrical ammo it’s largely been a go-to text for shoddy metal bands looking to plump their intellectual feathers and make like a poetry peacock, hoping that the stature of the piece, the grandness of it’s sweep, will somehow legitimise their collective caterwaul.
So it’s stirring to find an artist like ex-Hüsker Dü and Nova Mob man Grant Hart taking a bold, broad stab at the huge themes of good and evil, shame, guilt, redemption and elemental war contained within the ten volume text. He does it with gusto, guileless ambition and almost baffling quirkiness and individuality.
The Argument is presented in four segments, stretches out to 20 songs and runs nearly 75 minutes - attempting, perhaps, to match its muse in length and ambition. Its sheer length is one of the more frustrating aspects of such an admirable undertaking – Hart’s quirks and tricks outstay their welcome by some margin, the intense guy with all the stories who’s compelling to be around for the first part of the night but who you find yourself wriggling away from as the evening drags on.
There’s much to admire here though, and some even to love. The schizoid character of the record is instantly apparent from the opening pairing of ‘Out Of Chaos’ and ‘Morningstar’. The former is an epic embrace of bells and chimes reminiscent of the Dü’s interludes on Candy Apple Grey (particularly the opening of the Bob Mould-penned ‘Too Far Down’) marked out in dramatic spoken word (directly lifted from Milton’s text it would seem) as the track builds – atonal organ jabbed, drum set toyed with, keyboard pitter patters – it wavers, wanders then locks in at the close to give way to the latter.
'Morningstar' is an unchanging lo-fi near-demo powered by crumbling practice amps that toys with notions of melody before lurching, flailing, into a choral sweep – “The moon is in a dream/The sun is in a stream/The distance isn’t far/You are the morning star”. It’s beyond pretension, beyond eccentricity, approaching the bizarre, a religious epic being retold through a street preacher’s battered old 4-track.
And so it goes, beautiful curiosities like the fearfully sad ‘I Will Never See My Home’, a shambling, cluttered lament that has a bassline rise and fall as affecting as that of Red House Painters’ ‘New Jersey’ are elevated to unpredictable heights by Hart’s charity shop Bowie vocals (not necessarily a bad thing, it’s the right kinda voice to be using to express these universal concepts) and made endearing, or annoying, by the rickety recording, confused composition and wild oscillations in style.
There’s the gothic circus hurdy gurdy of ‘If We Have the Will’ (proud owner of the fantastic line “This time we can make a stand by simply standing still”); the Tom Waits carousel sounds of ‘Sin’, steeped in cynicism – “I’ll eat right through your soul” Hart warns; the tremulous, melodramatic ‘It Isn’t Love’ where a great melody gets repeated to the point that the mind tires and drifts.
‘I Am Death’ waves its Red Right Hand and performs an Irving Berlin stomp, again drenched through in Bowie-isms (“No man has seen my face” he declares in that very particular way) – dogs bark, organs honks, bells ring and whistles toot.
Throughout it's this anachronistic clash of form and content that continues to surprise, confuse, compel and bewilder – the brisk acoustic rattle of ‘Letting Me Out’, which finds the devil himself pleading his case with humanity, is delivered as a tubthumpin’ Fifties rock'n'roll charmer replete with a magnetic chorus and classic style – and it’s unsettling to hear such obsessions sieved through such incongruous means.
Sometimes it sounds like a half-realised musical (‘Glorious’), sometimes it’s madly melodramatic (‘The Argument’) and sometimes, very occasionally, it’s reminiscent of Hart’s halcyon days in the Eighties (‘It Was A Most Disturbing Dream’).
Yet always it’s intense, the work of an obsessive, an artist entirely embroiled in his subject matter, bursting at the seams to share the power of the message, to hammer out his art furiously and with vigour. Milton’s work has raised a madness in a man’s soul once more and driven this unique talent to attempt a musical adventure unlike any other. The Argument's cataclysmic clashes and multitudinous puzzle pieces that never quite fit together are the stuff of a deeply flawed classic.
7Matthew Slaughter's Score