The Just Played Verdict: John Grant – ‘Pale Green Ghosts’

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.

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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.

1. John Grant–Queen Of Denmark

Best of 2010At the start of the year, the big story about ‘Queen Of Denmark’ was that Midlake were the backing band. By December, the fuss is all about the remarkable voice, presence and charisma of John Grant. Battered, bruised, disaffected and dissatisfied after years as the frontman of one of rock’s great secret pleasures, The Czars, Grant had retreated from the world of music to wait tables and make use of some of the many languages in which he is well versed.

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Queen Of Denmark’, the slow-burning masterpiece of 2010, is the result of Denton, Texas’ finest coercing Grant back into the studio. When asked to review this album in the early months of the year, I gave it a solid seven. By the time it was released, and I was revisiting my text for publication here, I commented that it should have been an eight. If your experience begins in a similar vein, stick with it because it is now, unquestionably, a ten.

Musically, it is a triumph, exuding an early Seventies style warmth which curls out of the speakers rather than ambushing you with any unnecessary punch. The slinky unravelling of opening track ‘TC And Honeybear’ gives a pretty clear indication of the musical terrain which lies ahead, ‘Where Dreams Go To Die’ a sweeping mid-paced delight from start to finish. I originally described ‘Chicken Bones’ as like the Scissor Sisters at half-speed and I’m not trying to distance myself from that remark just now, although it is considerably better than anything said band have released to date. The lyric, “I got out of my bed this morning and I noticed that it didn’t have a right side,” is one of many, many brilliant lines on this remarkable album because it is one of those rare triumphs: a musical delight matched by exquisitely great lyrics. Obviously, I don’t own any copyright or the like on this, but I reproduce below the entire lyric from the album’s title and closing track, ‘Queen Of Denmark’. While Lucky Soul may have claimed the line of the year previously, the complete lyric of 2010 has to be this deliciously vitriolic expulsion:

I wanted to change the world,
but I could not even change my underwear.
And when the shit got really, really out of hand,
I had it all the way up to my hairline
which keeps receding like my self-confidence,
as if I ever had any of that stuff anyway.
I hope I didn’t destroy your celebration
or your Bar Mitzvah, birthday party or your Christmas.
You put me in this cage and threw away the key.
It was this ‘us and them’ shit that did me in.
You tell me that my life is based upon a lie;
I casually mention that I pissed in your coffee.
I hope you know that all I want from you is sex,
to be with someone who looks smashing in athletic wear,
and if your haircut isn’t right you’ll be dismissed.
Get your walking papers and you can leave now.

Don’t know what to want from this world,
I really don’t know what to want from this world.
I don’t know what it is you want to want from me,
you really have no right to want anything from me at all.
Why don’t you take it out on somebody else?
Why don’t you bore the shit out of somebody else?
Why don’t you tell somebody else that they’re selfish?
Weepy coward and pathetic…

Who’s gonna be the one to save me from myself?
You’d better bring a stun gun and perhaps a crowbar,
you’d better pack a lunch and get up really early
and you should probably get down on your knees and pray.
It’s really fun to look embarrassed all the time
like you could never cut the mustard with the big boys.
I really don’t know who the fuck you think you are;
can I please see your license and your registration?

So Jesus hasn’t come in here to pick you up.
You’ll still be sitting right here ten years from now.
You’re just a sucker but we’ll see who gets the last laugh –
who knows, maybe you’ll get to be the next Queen of Denmark.

And breathe. Staggering stuff, and ten times as good when you hear him actually singing it. The moment when the track explodes, as he cries out “Why don’t you take it out on somebody else?” is utterly perfect, the demented thrust mirroring perfectly the emotions at the heart of the song. There are many moments on the album where Grant settles prior scores and offers a quite mesmerisingly honest insight into his life, but this is its zenith.

At the risk of making every other post in this list about the Green Man Festival, watching Grant perform on a drizzly Friday night was one of those moments that won’t be forgotten in a hurry. A small band of those in the know had assembled, safe in the knowledge that a real treat was forthcoming, and the crowd grew considerably as his spellbinding baritone rose over the soggy fields and seduced the damp from all directions. Recent interviews have found Grant expressing genuine surprise at the reception to ‘Queen Of Denmark’ and it was clear that night that these songs continue to hold the baggage so openly displayed in their words. An a cappella version of ‘Chicken Bones’, as his stripped down stage setup didn’t allow for a full performance, lingers long in the mind and it served to highlight the staggering depth of a truly amazing voice.

Bella Union released an almost suspicious number of brilliant records in 2010, but none were more special than this unique burst of a man laying bare his emotional no man’s land. There is a remarkable double vinyl version available which is as good a pressing as any I own and which is the ultimate way to hear this sensational album. Hyperbole be damned, this is an absolute masterpiece.

Song Of The Day 37: John Grant – I Wanna Go To Marz

A beautiful, lilting winsome bit of indie this. Backed by Midlake and featuring some subtle but hugely effective strings, ‘I Wanna Go To Marz’ is an utterly charming first taste of John Grant’s forthcoming solo record, ‘Queen Of Denmark’. Formerly the frontman of indie bit-part-players The Czars, he’s struck out on his own. Well, if recording a record with a bunch of current folk-rock heroes counts as striking out on your own.

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This particular track also features some charming flute playing from Midlake frontman, Tim Smith, knitting together a beautiful vocal and a marvellously swoonsome music backdrop. The album will appear in April – you’ll be wanting it, I should tell you right now – but this first single is being offered for nowt by those nice folk at Bella Union. You can click through and read about it here or simply download the song by clicking here.