John Milton’s Paradise Lost has inspired many throughout the ages: from Wordsworth, the Shelleys and other Romantics, through to Salman Rushdie and beacons of popular culture such as Fallout 3 and Se7en. Oh, and it inspired a whole section of the London Olympics Opening Ceremony.
Of course, music hasn’t escaped the clutches of, to quote literary critic John Carey, “literature’s first Romantic, Satan”. It’s been a mainstay of operas and numerous metal and goth bands, while those familiar with Nick Cave may be able to spot the odd reference.
For example, in Book II, with Satan debating whether to take on the tyranny of God once more, Bilial – “a fairer person lost not Heav’n” – spoke of his fear of God’s retribution if those in Chaos took him on again: “Should intermitted vengeance arm again, his red right hand to plague us?”
But there’s now another figure to add to those inspired by the story of Man’s downfall – Husker Dü’s Grant Hart.
The Argument, Hart’s fifth solo opus, is a concept album inspired by Milton and also William S Burroughs: Hart was shown an unpublished Burroughs manuscript of Lost Paradise, with fallen angels portrayed as men from distant planets and God as American President Harry S Truman, the man who authorised the bombing of Hiroshima. (Perhaps gives some credence that it’s “better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n”.) Nevertheless, despite the inspiration of Burroughs, Milton is the primary impetus for The Argument. Indeed, the album title is seemingly taken from the name given to the summaries of each book in Paradise Lost.
Album opener Out Of Chaos has features of Pandemonium rising out of Chaos, with dischordant synth against the strident sounding drums, while Hart introduces “Man’s first disobedience…[that] brought death onto the world” and the prospect of a greater man to restore us. In essence, summing up the narrative of Paradise Lost quite nicely – and theatrically.
Following track Morning Star begins with drum machine beats, before becoming a rather delicate sounding piece of indie pop. In Paradise Lost, Satan is described as a “morning star”, enticing those around him to follow him. Hart captures that brilliantly here, with the track’s somewhat soft but alluring sound presenting Satan as anything but satanic. In turn, it illustrates Milton’s ‘trap’: you risk falling for Satan. This is also the case with I Will Never See My Home Again, which portrays Satan as a lost figure cast away from his native home.
But aside from The Argument’s principal inspiration, Hart also adopts varied musical inspirations. Awake Arise has a David Bowie-like, Berlin trilogy quality to it, especially when lyrics such as “he sent his precious little one there, rolling in with his great thunder” are delivered in that menacing Bowieesque way. If We Have The Will carries on the Bowie-type sound, with the accordion and synth loops creating something not far removed from 1977’s Low.
Meanwhile, Sin is a sort of cross between blues and burlesque cabaret with its Hammond-sounding organ and camp delivery of lyrics like “I’m not one those pretty angels you find… no, I’m not that kind” – again, Satan is cast in a way that could make him wickedly attractive. On top of that, War In Heaven, as the title suggests, is arguably the most Husker Dü of all 20 tracks – a four and a half minute assault featuring air raid sirens, heavy guitars and thudding drums.
Underneath The Apple Tree is wonderfully tongue-in-cheek; sung from the serpent’s point-of-view and featuring simple ukelele and kazoo, the serpent tries to tempt Eve into eating The Forbidden Fruit: “You can become a goddess if you desire…beautiful fruit, pleasing to the eye… you can make it up into a pie”. The downfall of Man expressed as something rather twee, innocent and naive is perhaps more truthful than presenting it as some sort of blustering, disastrous event.
Album closer For Those Two High Aspiring captures Milton’s ‘argument’ perfectly, with its bittersweet lyrics (“Every breath is a step closer to your death… smile you are a happy exile”) perfectly summing up Milton’s final lines in Book XII: “The world was all before them, where to choose their point of rest, and Providence their guide, they hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow”. Adam and Eve are consigned to eventual death, but can live a life of freedom and discovery.
The Argument is a highly laudable effort – literary heads will enjoy its attempt at condensing the complexities of the epic poem, while many will take pleasure in the story Man’s downfall sounding so varied and tuneful. This is the ideal record for Hart in many ways – indeed, his troubles with drug abuse mean that, in a sense, he’s stared into the face of temptation, of Satan. He can empathise with Eve more than most.