With 2010’s Queen of Denmark, John Grant gave himself a hard act to follow. A lush, poetic folk-rock masterpiece, QoD is a strikingly personal study of human cruelty and frailty, rooted in Grant’s experiences as a young, gay man in the Midwest. Having delved so deeply into his personal life for source material, where exactly could he go for an encore?
One option – step back and change tack entirely – looked to be how Grant had gone when Pale Green Ghosts‘ title track came out in January. With producer Biggi Veira from GusGus, Grant went electronic, not organic, and replaced verbose linear memoir with spacious abstraction, using lyrics for texture as much as narrative. ‘Pale Green Ghosts’, which opens the album, is largely instrumental, with Yello-style sequencers throughout and an ultra-subtle Rachmaninoff sample woven into elegant descending strings as the song winds down.
‘Black Belt’ sees Grant hissing “You are callipygian / But look at the state you’re in” to a lover, adversary or maybe both, backed by a sharp, aggressive disco-house track. (Yes, I had to look up ‘callipygian’.) It’s a piece of well-constructed electro-pop looseness, like ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’, which even a three-year-old can dance to. Even ‘Ernest Borgnine’, in which Grant reveals his HIV diagnosis, buries the solemnity in the mix, alongside a jazz sax solo and the lyric “I wonder what Ernest Borgnine would do / I got to meet him once and he was really, really cool”.
Elsewhere, though, Grant has hardly changed tack at all. ‘I Hate This Town’ and ‘GMF’ retrieve his prior 70s soft rock sound, and there’s a familiar emotional tone to ‘Vietnam’, as Grant theatrically picks apart the personality of an ex-partner: “Your silence is a weapon / It’s like a nuclear bomb / It’s like the Agent Orange they used to use in Vietnam”. Jeez – just how quiet is this guy?
The core of Pale Green Ghosts comes in a three-song, mid-album stretch as rawly affecting as anything Grant has done, thick with loneliness and anger; the songs are starker, less mellifluous than their QoD counterparts. ‘It Doesn’t Matter To Him’ features empathetic vocals from Sinéad O’Connor and a gorgeous vintage Roland synth outro, leading into the foggy, perplexed, oppressive ‘Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore’ and then a blast of pure genius in the form of ‘You Don’t Have To’.
‘You Don’t Have To’, which Grant has said he wrote about “a seven-year relationship that lasted six years and ten months too long”, is melodically eloquent and packed with funny, lacerating lines: “I feel so stupid ‘cos I let myself down / I acted like a motherfucking clown / At a circus / On the outskirts of town”. Grant opened his 2011 shows with a pared-down, piano-led version of this song; the recorded rendering sounds like a Kraftwerk cover, and the chillier arrangement allows some distance between the listener and the emotional wreckage being reported. It’s a distance you might need; the song is tough. It brings back up a question I’ve asked before: Why do we find this kind of thing so riveting? What is so attractive about pain?
Conveniently, Grant has asked the question himself and his considered response brings Pale Green Ghosts to a close. A denouement of some grandeur, ‘Glacier’ is a meditation on pain that could be a letter to Grant’s younger, struggling self. He offers two pieces of advice: first, you don’t have to suffer like I did, and second, if you do, the pain can have a purpose; it can beget beauty.
‘Glacier’ ends with sweeping strings and a thumping classical piano coda – again with the Rachmaninoff; he’s so hot right now – but before it does, John Grant explains, exaltingly, inspiringly, to himself or to someone else hurting somewhere: “This pain / It is a glacier moving through you / And carving out deep valleys / And creating spectacular landscapes / And nourishing the ground / With precious minerals / And other stuff”.
You know, it makes sense when you put it like that.