On the several occasions I had seen John Grant perform prior to the release of this second solo outing, he had always cut an awkward and intense figure onstage, but one possessing a brutal knack for self-deprecating connections with an audience. A select number of artists have a genuine pull of their own, a force that draws you in and lays siege to your soul. You root for them, smile at the sight of them, find yourself savouring every second of their songs, hanging on the last waves of reverb emanating from a final note before unleashing applause. In short, you spend ninety minutes grinning like a twat and never once wonder what the time is or consider how tired you are.
Grant is, for me at least, one of those artists, and I approached ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ with a little trepidation, worried about the impact of my own expectations after the remarkable solo debut, ‘Queen Of Denmark’, had proved to be my favourite album of 2010. Having been teased publicly via its title track, it was clear that this wouldn’t simply be more of the same. The bubbling six minutes of minimalist electronica and synth trumpets were a defiant way to follow up a record lauded for its Seventies-inspired singer-songwriter chops. Naturally, the always rational and considered internet community sprung into action and the album was written off in some corners before it had even had a chance to be illegally leaked for a little voyeuristic backlash porn. That uncertainty and unease which seems to have been prompted by the varied sounds of this release is easily allayed after a few listens and I now find myself, almost exactly twelve months down the line from my first listen on the very first day of this year, increasingly of the opinion that ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ is superior to that remarkable debut. A wildly different and yet reassuringly familiar beast, it possesses some truly wondrous lyrics and a sizeable portion of melody.
By the time Grant appeared at Komedia in Bath, as part of the promotion for this album, his stage presence seemed to have grown. No longer peering out to see if the world would be bothered, he stood before a rapt audience safe in the knowledge that everyone in the room was in the know. Deploying several of the record’s more electronic songs early on, with accompanying rave lights and shuddering bass, the triumph was assured twenty minutes in. Any doubts one might have about tinkering with a winning formula can be easily dispelled by actually listening to this album.
The lingering presence of lost love TC, who had more than his fair share of influence on the debut’s lyrical content, is noticeable across proceedings, although the mood seems rather more sour, not least on the gloriously venomous ‘Black Belt’. This track also neatly demonstrates the middle of the ‘Queen Of Denmark/Pale Green Ghosts’ venn diagram. After some unexpectedly productive collaboration with Biggi Veira from electronic act Gus Gus, Grant was compelled to record the entire album in Veira’s native Iceland, despite having been planning to resume proceedings with Midlake back in Denton, Texas. It’s hard to imagine how a track like ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’ might have worked in such circumstances, ending up as it did sounding like a gloriously sardonic LCD Soundsystem.
When I wrote my sizeable justification for ‘Queen Of Denmark’ topping my 2010 list, I quoted the entire lyric to its title track as evidence of the quite stunning grasp of language Grant possesses and the way in which he can balance the rawest of emotions with the most knowing of smirks. It wouldn’t be difficult to pull a similar stunt in relation to this record and I have found myself unable to shake lyrics from several of the album’s highpoints. Chief amongst them has been this measured but explosive chorus from ‘Vietnam’:
“Your silence is a weapon,
it’s like a nuclear bomb.
It’s like the Agent Orange
they used to use in Vietnam,
and it’s accompanied by an apathy
which is deafening to the ears.
You know it is complete and perfect
and you wield it without fear”
Add in the raw majesty of ‘I Hate This Town’, ‘Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore’ and ‘Glacier’ and you’ll feel like sobbing for him. Except you don’t. There is a strange euphoria at the heart of ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ which is intrinsically linked to Grant’s humility and humour. The wry and biting lyrical content is capable of rendering you occasionally speechless in delight at exactly what he’s just pulled off, and such a knack for communication and ruthless honesty resulted in him telling the crowd at a Hercules & Love Affair gig, where he was guesting last summer, that he is HIV positive. ‘Ernest Borgnine’ tackles this topic exactly as you might imagine he would: “Doc ain’t lookin’ at me, he says I got the disease. Now what did you expect, you spent your life on your knees.” Although this diagnosis received column inches for pretty much all of the promotion of the album, it had a relatively small impact upon the material. Indeed, it’s those two other initials which still seem more determined recipients of Grant’s venom.
These songs are still as utterly captivating as the year comes to a close as they were at its start. They have mutated in various directions since their release, through live performance, remix and collaboration. The deluxe CD set featured a wondrous remix of the title track by No Ceremony which hijacks the horn riff and adds extra helpings of doom and ominous bass, while several EPs which have snuck out as companion pieces have refitted the songs in various, but no less affecting, ways. ‘The Strongroom EP’ stripped back a selection of the material to its bare bones, and may be of use to those struggling to make the leap between the styles. It highlights the true brilliance of Grant’s songwriting as these melodies hold their own when they are free of any dressing, something which was also underlined by the recently released ‘Gets Schooled EP’. A five track set, it features duets on four highlights from ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ and a cover of Abba‘s ‘My Love My Life’ performed with Villagers. The highlight is a surprisingly moving reading of ‘Glacier’ with Sinead O’Connor, who had previously put in an appearance in the background of the album itself. I don’t often buy into spin-offs and bonus discs, but this unique suite of songs deserves every last bit of the attention being lavished upon it.
Making one truly remarkable record in your career is no mean feat. Plenty of artists never get close. But making more than one really sets you apart and, with ‘Pale Green Ghosts’, John Grant has done just that. While his solo debut seemed to be something of a slow-burner, this follow up has had plenty of entirely justified coverage and was sufficiently ubiquitous in the end of year lists to even earn a place in Vice‘s annual spoof countdown. Don’t let that put you off, though. That he is now acknowledged as a remarkable talent is how it should be. This is very much not ‘Queen Of Den-mark II‘, but in its scope, ambition, songwriting, emotional impact, humour and sense of melody it is, at the very least, that debut’s equal.