John Grant - Pale Green Ghosts
Posted on Thursday, 7 March 2013 | No Comments
If nothing else, John Grant must be an absolute piece of piss to write a press release though. One critically acclaimed but commerically shunned band in the nineties? Check. Struggles with his sexuality? Check. Addictions to alcohol and heroin? Check. Depression? Check. Christ, you barely even have to listen to the thing and you've got your story.
Thing is, while biography/press-release driven churnalism might be one of the great plagues of current music writing, John Grant is one of those artists whose work is impossible to seperate from the man behind it. After several great but ignored albums as the leader of The Czars, John Grant quit music in defeat, attempting to sort out his spectacularly messy private life, only lured back into the fol when Midlake offered their studio and their services as a backing band to help him record what would become his first solo album, 2010's masterful Queen of Denmark.
Combining beautiful, 70s inspired singer-songwriter melody, some cathartic, blood-letting lyricism sweetened with a dark, masochistic wit and John Grant's warm, wisened vocals, Queen of Denmark became a deserved word-of-mouth success which saw John Grant finally gaining the acclaim he richly deserved. So if your whole career is based on misery, what do you do when things start going your way?
Fortunately for his songwriting (if not his personal life), there's been plenty of tumult alongside the success. Not to get too bogged down in recent developments - besides, this recent interview with The Guardian lays it all out just fine - but if nothing else, there wasn't much risk of a lack of inspiration going into the second album. This isn't to say that Pale Green Ghosts is just Queen of Denmark II though: musically and lyrically, it builds on the former whilst also edging out new ground and taking his songwriting to further extremes of black comedy and heartbreak.
From the tense, nervous title track onwards, one thing is clear: this time round, synths are in. While there had been one or two dips into this water on the previous record like the scathing, anti-homophobe anthem JC Hates Faggots, the presence of Birgir Þórarinsson on the record pushes Grant's grandiose ballads far further into synth-pop territory than might have ever been expected. It might be an adjustment for anyone who delighted in the soft-rock sheen that was previously John Grant's stock in trade, it's a development that allows Grant to find new spaces to explore in his songwriting.
Black Belt makes the most of Grant's gift for the perfect sarcastic turn of phrase with its four to the floor beat and house bass line, the astonishingly honest Ernest Borgenine uses vocoder as just one of its tools of self-examination, and Sensitive New Age Guy ends up borderline LCD Soundsystem in its dancefloor ready pulse and scathing hipster strip-down. It's not all hi-NRG though: album centerpiece Why Don't You Love Me crafts a soundscape that's equal parts Yazoo and Cluster to bring out the torment and coldness in Grant's tale of heartbreak, while backing vocalist Sinead O'Connor (who, with her defiant public image and own struggles with mental health, makes for a suitable guardian angel over this broken but unbowed album) pushes her voice into a ferocious, goosebump inducing higher register. It's a superb and brave track that brings together what we already love about John Grant but placing it in a whole new context.
There's still traces of his more typical piano-driven beauty littered across the record though. GMF's lightly strummed guitars and soft-focus organ sound would slip into Queen of Denmark's mid section just nicely (even if the snark factor is dialled way up to ten here), and It Doesn't Matter To Him rides on pretty guitar arpeggios until a Pink Floyd-esque synth line turns up to ride the song into a dramatic coda. Even then though, the ghostly presence of O'Connor and the more scathing lyrical tone that runs across the record keep up the musical progression of Pale Green Ghosts.
The album's finest flourish proves to be its final one however. Glacier is a powerful anthem for gay teenagers who, as Grant had, found themselves abused and unallowed to express themselves. Over dramatic strings, Grant delivers the album's most straight-forward lyrics, sympathising with the mistreated while promising them a better future to come - "Don't become paralysed by fear", he pleads, a direct emotional address new to Grant's songwriting. As the music winds itself into a soaring cresendo, Glacier emerges as a strident new note for this artist, a perfectly measured and delivered song of survival.
As a whole, Pale Green Ghosts is (impressively, almost) a darker, angrier album than its predecessor, Grant's inner demons and self-loathing expressed with greater lyrical ferocity and a new electronic sound palette. While it may not be as immediate as Queen of Denmark, repeated listens reveal an album every bit as immaculately crafted and powerful - and, almost in spite of itself, one that still offers a candle of hope to the troubled and the lost.