I first heard of John Grant from the very knowledgeable Gareth from @justplayed, who nominated Grant’s first solo album, Queen of Denmark, as his record of the year for 2010. Yet when I picked through reviews in the mainstream music mags, it was the references to FM soft rock that – unfairly as it happens – stood out. ‘Gah, more hipster beard retro Fleetwood Mac referencing nonsense,’ I muttered.
Never mind that in our glorious interwebbed world of YouTube, Spotify, Last.fm and the rest I could have checked out what all the fuss was about myself. (And never mind that @justplayed’s review was far more interesting and informative than nearly all of the music mags.) Oh no missus, far easier to dismiss a whole artists’ body of work on the basis of one line of a page-long review.
Fast forward to 2013, and news of Grant’s sophomore release, Pale Green Ghosts, surfaces in my inbox, with a link to stream the album and more rapturous reviews. Finally, I click on the link and – you’ve guessed it – I love it immediately, unconditionally.
Recorded in Iceland and produced by Biggi Veira, latterly of Gus Gus, the album brings in electronic textures, creating a more varied backdrop for Grant’s velvety tones. The album’s title track, with its squelchy electronic bass line, eases us into the album, while ‘Black Belt’ unleashes a tough disco funk groove reminiscent of ‘Sign of the times’-era Prince, as Grant takes down his ex-lover, crooning: ‘You are supercilious/Pretty and ridiculous/You got really good taste/You know how to cut and paste’, the smoothness of his delivery undercutting the bitchiness of the lyric.
The travails of Grant’s personal life have been well documented, and again the lyrics hint at dark subject matter. ‘It isn’t complicated, you just don’t care/You attack me by not saying anything/You say you don’t bring your anger to me/But it poisoned every fibre of your being,’ Grant sings in ‘Vietnam’, one of the best descriptions of a passive aggressive dysfunctional relationship I’ve heard on record.
Yet the harshness is leavened by some acerbic wit, as on ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’: ‘Where she had been they had to replace light bulbs constantly/’Cos she could only always be the brightest in the room/She had a special way of preaching glamour mixed with doom’. Oh, and the synths are amazing on this song too.
Fans of Queen of Denmark-era Grant may be disappointed that the down-tempo piano-driven songs of his debut are relatively scarce here, with only ‘GMF’ and the final pairing of ‘I Hate this Town’ (its mellow vibes undercut by the bitterness of the lyrics) and ‘Glacier’ balancing the electro-house inflections of the rest of the album.
It’s no big deal for this listener though – the movement from electronic to acoustic instrumentation aren’t as jarring as you might think, with Grant’s distinctive baritone unifying what might be disparate elements.
The darkness of the subject matter aside, the album is a beautiful thing: warm, just a little bit groovy, melodic, at times funny, bleak and yet life affirming. I slept on John Grant for far too long, but now I’ve woken up.
Pale Green Ghosts is out now on Bella Union.