More than one nagging earworm that just won’t let go. Lyrics that provoke a genuine emotional reaction every time you hear them. A variety of styles deployed with unflinching belief in their impact. All of the above represent a small sample of the thoughts I’ve had about this remarkable album since I first heard it. ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ entered my world on January 1st and seemed a fitting palette cleanser for a year to come, but it had first demonstrated its power over me during John Grant’s performance at Swn Festival in Cardiff last October. Half a dozen new tracks were given a sparse rendering before a rapt audience in the beautiful Reardon Theatre.
On the several occasions I have seen Grant perform, he has always cut an awkward and intense figure onstage, but one with 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’, which had proved to be my album of 2010. Having been teased publically 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, three months down the line, 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.
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 the album, although the mood seems rather more sour, not least on the gloriously venomous ‘Black Belt’. This track also neatly demonstrates the melding of his previous sound and the electronic music of which Grant has always been a fan. After some unexpectedly productive collaboration with Biggi Veira from electronic act Gus Gus, he 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, having ended up 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 over recent weeks I have found myself unable to shake lyrics from several of the album’s highpoints. Most recently, and this will only serve to extend its run, it 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 has received column inches for pretty much all of the promotion of the album, it has a relatively small impact upon the songs. Indeed, it’s those two other initials which still seem more determined recipients of Grant’s venom.
The release of ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ has been accompanied by both a remix disc and an EP of stripped down piano versions of some of the material. Each has its own merits and I would imagine the simplified takes will likely appeal to those initially struggling with the shift in sound, but both serve to underline the quality of the songwriting on show here. Whether it’s the grandiose crescendo present on the EP version of ‘Glacier’ or the simple but effective way in which the ‘No Ceremony RMX’ of the album’s title track suddenly makes you realise just how gorgeously brooding those plastic horn stabs really are, the overriding sense is of being in possession of something truly special.
2013 has already shown itself to be a pretty impressive year for music and there’s a hell of a lot more to come, but it’s hard to imagine ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ doing anything other than growing in stature. In an age of shuffle, online streams and endless choice, this is a bold and innovative suite fully deserving of your sustained and repeated attention. Twelve weeks in and dozens of listens later, I’m just starting to realise what I think about this album. I am genuinely excited to see what its impact will be another twelve weeks or months down the line.