For those who know me, it probably isn’t a surprise that I’m writing about former Husker-Dü drummer and songwriter Grant Hart’s new album on my Milton blog. For those who think it odd, I would suggest considering that this album’s lineage reaches back to John Dryden’s earliest adaptation of Paradise Lost. As I mentioned in my last post, Dryden’s opera, completed only seven years after Milton’s epic was first published, was certainly an “update” of Paradise Lost. Dryden’s rhymes corrected both the style and politics of Milton’s poem and made it palatable for Restoration court culture. Re-printed far more times than Paradise Lost throughout the remainder of the seventeenth century, The State of Innocence and the Fall of Man was certainly Restoration “pop culture.” The Argument is simply the latest attempt to update Milton.
Grant Hart’s album, released 22 July 2013 by Domino Records, is not simply inspired by Paradise Lost. It is, like Dryden’s opera, an adaptation. One need only peruse the track list to get a feel for how the album reworks Milton’s epic.
Track List: Out of Chaos Morningstar Awake, Arise! If We Have the Will I Will Never See My Home I Am Death Sin Letting Me Out Is the Sky the Limit? Golden Chain So Far From Heaven Shine, Shine, Shine It Isn’t Love War in Heaven Glorious (It was a) Most Disturbing Dream Underneath the Apple Tree The Argument Run for the Wilderness For Those Too High Aspiring
While at least one reviewer suggested the title of the album derives from the “argument” that precedes each book of Milton’s poem, the title track more clearly refers to Adam and Eve’s argument. This, the finest track on the album is not, as I first suspected, the marital spat that occurs when Eve suggests she garden alone, but instead encompasses the debate that occurs when Eve offers the forbidden fruit to Adam.
As with many adaptations of Paradise Lost, Satan looms large throughout. His point of view is represented without break for the first ten tracks. This Satan is somewhat plaintive, even whiny at times. His finest moment is probably in Awake, Arise! as he motivates his fallen host to rouse themselves to action. He shows appropriate scorn of the Son he describes as “His precious little wonder / rolling in with his great thunder.” Satanic resolve in defeat is also present as he vows:
We will build a whole new kingdom to oppose the old one up above, we will conquer, we will not liberate, I will dictate, I will dominate, I will focus my unending hate to destroy that which he loves. (chant: Awake, Arise! or be forever fallen)
Satan’s promise to “conquer” without pretense of liberating seems in 2013 somehow refreshingly honest in its open malice.
At other times, the Satanic project seems undermined by the music. The raising of Pandemonium in If We Have the Will is accompanied by a carnivalesque, hurdy-gurdy like sound. The plot to find and overthrow man, also revealed in this song, seems somewhat out-of-place here. However, Stanley Fish might appreciate how this song makes the fallen host seem silly and questions the “heroism” of the preceding track.
Satan’s journey out of Hell casts him as an exile in I Will Never See My Home, the arch-fiend at his most plaintive. We may find some sympathy for the devil here as he bids farewell to the happy fields of heaven. This is followed by the scenes in which Satan encounters Sin and Death. Death is a hard rocker, as one might expect, but the refrain reminds me of a Disney song from Beauty and the Beast. Sin’s song also seems cartoonish, a dark Jessica Rabbit seducing listeners in a cartoon cabaret. Not that this is necessarily inappropriate; these allegorical figures have given Milton’s critics fits since Addison.
For a Miltonist, the song Golden Chain is perhaps the least forgivable on the album. Satan approaches the created world and spies Earth. Grant sings, “The world it hangs from a golden chain suspended from the sun.” And worse, “The earth is chained to a ball of flame that burns forever more.” The liberties with Milton’s cosmology here are cringe-worthy. In Paradise Lost, it is, of course, the entire created universe that hangs from Heaven by a golden chain.
From here, the plot moves quickly. We get an interlude with Uriel and Satan on the Sun (So Far from Heaven), and then Adam sings a love song to Eve (Shine, Shine Shine). Raphael apparently comes to give his warning even before Eve’s dream in It Isn’t Love. The War In Heaven is Raphael’s account of Satan’s rebellion. We hear Klaxons and machine gun fire, along with a loop of voices in combat (“come on, fire!”). The repetition, and something that sounds to my ear like wind-up toy soldiers, may hint at the futile nature of the combat as the Father leaves his angels equal in power to fight for three days. In any case, the battle isn’t resolved in this track. The Son enters the fray in Glorious. Jingoistic, hubristic, and annoying, this Son would make anyone want to rebel. He reveals the darker side of his nature with the lines:
Glorious… yes I am. Glorious you know, you know I am. They call me a prince of peace; they are half way right. Stand clear — the thunder-god is here to fight.
Following on the heels of this, Eve has her dream, and then the temptation happens. We listen in Underneath the Apple Tree in the place of Eve as the serpent, with a retro old-time radio huckster voice, sells us snake oil about the effect of the forbidden fruit. The Argument between Adam and Eve is without doubt the best song on the album. While many of the other tracks are curiosities that would suffer if detached from the concept album as a whole, The Argument is genuinely a good tune. Somber and redolent of the Fall, it is well worth a listen.
After the Fall, Adam and Eve Run for the Wilderness, exiled from the garden. The album wraps up with For Those Too High Aspiring, a song that seems to make the entire story a cautionary tale about “biting off more than you can chew.” It presents the results of the fall for man (“every step brings you closer to your death,”) although it may suggest Satan has also failed. The best bit of this closing song is a refrain of “Whoa whoa whoa” which I can only hope is spelled “woe woe woe” on the lyric sheet.
Like Dryden’s opera, there are some important deviations from Milton’s epic in this adaptation of Paradise Lost. Characterization, of course, is tough to accomplish in an album-length project, so we should perhaps excuse the fact that only Satan really receives this treatment. However, while Adam gets his moment in Shine, Shine, Shine, Eve’s speaking parts after her dream and after the temptation do not provide us much sympathy for her. The best “argument” in Milton’s poem, Eve’s prelapsarian debate with Adam about the tension between liberty and security, seems a lost opportunity to paint Eve in a sympathetic light here.
In engaging the theodicy of Milton’s poem, Hart’s adaptation shares some traits with Dryden’s and goes beyond them. Where Dryden seemed to leave out the Son, possibly as unseemly to present in poetry or on the stage, Hart’s Son is insufferable in his cameo moment and lives up to Satan’s dismissive early description of him. Like Dryden’s version, The Argument give us no hint of the Son’s exaltation, or his offer to be incarnated. After the fall, Michael does not provide the protoevangelium, so there is no hint of a fortunate fall. These features combine so that, more so than in Dryden’s attempt, Hart’s rendition is all fall; however, it is a hell of a ride.
– David Harper, 24 July 2013