UAM: Grant Hart – Intolerance (SST Records 1989)

When the seminal Minneapolis melodic hardcore trio Hüsker Dü ruptured under the weight of addiction, acrid internal rivalry, and tragic circumstances in 1987, it was inevitable that the two songwriting lynchpins would embark on solo careers.

So whereas bassist Greg Norton and his magnificent handlebar moustache retired from active music duties to become a respected gourmet chef, singer-guitarist Bob Mould and singing-drummer Grant Hart were soon to take themselves out to new individual realms.

Yet the subsequent paths Mould and Hart took were quite divergent. Mould inked a major-label deal with Virgin, which released two relentlessly morose and bitter records – the wearisome Workbook (1989) and the infamously bleak Black Sheets of Rain (1990). Then, as we should all know, Bob went on to bigger and better things with the more amenable unit-shifting grunge-pop trio Sugar, before returning to an intermittent good, bad, and very ugly solo career from the late-90’s onwards.

Hart, on the other hand, recoiled to relative obscurity. He returned to SST, the Californian independent label that had released the bulk of Hüsker Dü’s essential mid-80’s material, to record his first and undoubtedly best post-Hüskers album – Intolerance. Easily surpassing both Mould’s solo work and Hart’s own stints with his 90’s rock trio Nova Mob, Intolerance is a wonderfully charming and remarkably enduring solo set.

Listening to Intolerance over a decade down the line is a revelatory experience. Those most accustomed to Hüsker Dü’s hardcore drive will be more than distracted by the distinct lack of squalling guitars but simultaneously reassured by the presence of sturdy pop melodies that always characterised Hart’s songs in the Hüsker Dü canon. Listeners also expecting dissolute self-pitying introspection will be equally surprised by the buoyant euphoria and fulsome delivery that characterises the majority of the songs within.

From the cut-up pop-art sleeve inwards resonates an eclectic and colourful collection. It matches the spirit and invention, though not the sound, of Hüsker Dü’s landmark double-album Zen Arcade whilst exploring Hart’s more wayward affections. His decision to record entirely solo proves worthwhile, giving the record an unforced lo-fi aesthetic that eschews the embarrassing 80s production that marred Hüsker Dü’s latter-day major-label releases.

Musically, Intolerance is primarily grounded in 60s garage-pop and folk-rock. Hart, never a strong guitar-player, also returns to the first love of his instrumental life – keyboards. In fact, in the early days of Hüsker Dü, Hart had been the keyboard-player that took to the drum stool because no one else was around at the time to fill it. Keyboards are splattered all across Intolerance; from the church organ motif than underpins the gutsy power-pop-chanting of “All of My Senses” to the fruity Farfisa than leads the instrumental “Roller-Rink.”

Many of the songs radiate with immense hope and yearning melodies despite the harsh background of their origin. The soaring harmonica-led “Now That You Know Me” is pure Dylan-pop circa “Highway 61 Revisited,” which seems to celebrate friends who pull you through the mire even though they have suffered in the process. The R.E.M.-ish twang of “Twenty-Five Forty-One” (named after the street number of Hüsker Dü’s old office and studio) alludes to the divorce of his former band but looks forward to better times. Its appeal is also universal to those who have had their lives twisted out of unexpected shape but (once again) find refuge with friends.

The most spine-tingling moment on Intolerance arrives four songs in, with the graphic and gregarious “The Main.” Taking the issue of his own well-documented heroin addiction head-on, Hart turns a potentially ghoulish topic into a joyful exorcism of the personal plague that cost him both his band and his friendship with Bob Mould. Sonically speaking, “The Main” is equally astounding. Conducted from a platform of plaintive piano, oratory organ swirls, and a soaring gospel-chorus built-up from layers of his own multi-tracked vocals, this centrepiece transports Hart’s muse a million miles away from its former Hüsker home. It’s a stunning hair-high-on-neck moment, and although Hart’s voice has never been technically sharp, the passion and heart of his conveyance always takes him over the last hurdle. And when he practically yells, “You know hell is the worst place that I’ve ever been to!” heroin chic has never sounded so unappetising. It’s a brutally honest, visceral, and brave statement that gives Intolerance such a well-defined edge.

It takes Hart seven songs to deliver an obvious sideswipe at Mould. But instead of sulphurous sneering, Hart merely shrugs off his aggressor with an amusing childlike “I can’t hear you” style whistle over the middle-eight, some ambling acoustic strumming, and toyshop jumbled percussion. It’s clever but not too coldly calculated, and bitter without being too twisted, showing Hart’s irrepressible humour hadn’t died with his old band.

The closing song (if we ignore the brief instrumental “Reprise” tacked to the very end) is the moving “She Can See the Angels Coming.” It’s a vulnerable, touching, but subtle memorial to the horror of Hüsker Dü’s closing months, when band manager Dave Savoy committed suicide just before the band’s final fraught tour. It’s a bewitching little song that avoids trite sentimentality with an eerie grace that Hart delivers delicately over phased synths, cymbal washes, and funeral organs. It’s a chilling emotive end to an astonishingly great album.

Admittedly Intolerance isn’t the finest record Grant Hart has put his name to; Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade and New Day Rising take the top-notched accolades. But the fact that Grant Hart managed to pick himself out of a quagmire to deliver a record of such raw energy, warmth and intelligence gives Intolerance its place in history. The fact that it has become so horribly hard-to-find is the only tragedy that currently surrounds it.

Intolerance captures Grant Hart having one last hurrah before his star descended from orbit and quietly slipped off the radar. It captures him passing on the baton of melody and dissonance from Hüsker Dü to the next generation of American underground rock innovators. His influence is still felt, even where it’s not noticed. From The Afghan Whigs to Buffalo Tom through to Nirvana and on to Sebadoh, the impact and influence of the sound that Grant Hart (and indeed Bob Mould) forged is incalculable and horribly undervalued.

By way of postscript, after Intolerance, Hart tried to keep his own torch alight with his power-trio Nova Mob which released two admirable but flawed albums – The Last Days of Pompeii (1991) and the self-titled Nova Mob (1994). Then, after a half-decade hiatus, Hart returned with a second solo record in 1999 entitled Good News for Modern Man. It’s an amiable but messy set of songs that proved that Intolerance was the last time that Grant Hart time really mattered, the last time he truly connected and the last time he was in full control of a remarkable talent.

Yet another record well overdue a reappraisal and a merciful rescue from rarity hell. Hunt it down.