Pale Green Ghosts
60:58 min • Bella Union • March 11, 2013
John Grant’s 2010 album, Queen of Denmark, was a slow burn success. Voted Mojo magazine’s Album of the Year, it gradually gained him a broad audience of devotees, some of whom may have been familiar with Grant as lead singer of The Czars, though most were, like me, responding to the consummate song-writing skills, the mellifluous voice, along with the painfully honest and idiosyncratic lyrics of an exciting new discovery. Grant gave us a tranche of achingly beautiful songs of love, break-up, self-loathing and loss, alongside playful mimicry of German electro-pop and disturbing sound experiments. For Grant’s new album, Pale Green Ghosts, he’s worked alongside Biggi Veira of Icelandic band Gus Gus and that influence is immediately apparent, as is his earlier referencing, even channeling, of The Carpenters and ELO, but here you also get shades of The Human League, Yazoo, and Ultravox.
When the album’s title track was released last month it sounded like something of a departure, with its chunky electro beats bubbling away underneath like volcanic mud springs. It’s sexy, mysterious, and dirty sounding, with layers of strings and brass giving it a darkly symphonic feel. The next track on the album, ‘Black Belt,’ carries on in similar gritty vein, though it’s poppier and dancier and showcases his trademark blend of wit and contempt; “You are supercilious, pretty and ridiculous. You got really good taste; you know how to cut and paste. What you got is a black belt in BS, but you can’t hawk your pretty wares up in here anymore. Hit your head on the playground at recess. Etch-a-Sketch your way out of this one, reject.”
As well as this, Grant has continued to produce songs about love and life and self-loathing that shine a light on every facet of those, from total devotion and faith in your lover, to bitter, and sometimes angry, disappointment. There’s a lot of wit and humour here too, though always of a blacker hue. Grant often shows most contempt for himself, though this too can be tempered by acknowledging (whilst always qualifying) his good side. In ‘GMF’ he shows how self-loathing plus self-love might equal self-knowledge:
I’m usually only waiting for you to stop talking
So that I can.
Concerning two-way streets, I have to say
That I am not a fan.
But I am the greatest motherfucker
That you’re ever gonna meet
From the top of my head
Down to the tips of the toes on my feet.
In this heartbreakingly beautiful song, as in others, Grant opens up a way of talking about yourself for gay men of a certain age and range of experience, and he articulates himself more explicitly than, say, Morrissey and with less melodrama than Rufus Wainwright, while rejecting love song clichés to express truisms in the particular:
Half of the time I think I’m in some movie.
I play the underdog of course.
I wonder who they’ll get to play me
Maybe they could dig up Richard Burton’s corpse.
I am not who you think I am.
I am quite angry, which I barely can conceal.
You think I hate myself, but it’s you I hate
Because you have the nerve to make me feel.
This and the next three tracks form a quartet that is the album’s heart of darkness. In ‘Vietnam’ his acid, slightly off-key, vocal – sour-sweet as sherbert lemon – floats above the music, while ‘It Doesn’t Matter to Him’ has him helpless in the face of rejection, exploring how unrequited love can colour even the good things in your life:
If I think about it, I am successful, as it were.
I get to sing for lovely people all over this lovely world.
And I am nowhere near as awkward as I was when I was younger.
I guess I’m one of those guys who gets better looking as they age.
And even though I have felt beaten down by constant doubt,
Depression, and confusion brought about by people’s actions, death, and tax forms,
I keep getting up. And I am loved by all my friends and family;
Though there have been lots of raised eyebrows
And concerned glances lately.
It doesn’t matter to him.
I could be anything,
But I could never win his heart again.
It doesn’t matter to him.
He took away my AAA pass.
I am invisible to him.
In this track and a couple of others he’s backed by Sinead O’Connor, whose siren voice adds layers of strength and sorrow in equal measure. In ‘Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore?’ Grant is not so much trying to heal as struggling to survive (“Well I don’t know that much about guns, but I feel like I’ve been shot by one. I am ashamed ’cause I don’t know myself right now and I am forty-three.”), and in ‘You Don’t Have To’ he pithily and wittily expresses how we idealise relationships and lovers once they’re gone, even though we really know the truth:
Remember walking hand in hand side by side?
We walked the dogs and took long strolls to the park–
Except we never had dogs
And never went to the park.
Remember how we used to fuck all night long?
Neither do I because I always passed out.
I needed lots of booze
To handle the pain.
No one I can think of (well, perhaps apart from Morrissey) expresses so well how you can love someone and hate them at the same time; how loving them and hating them makes you feel about yourself, while acknowledging that not all of it is their fault:
There are days when I think about you,
And on those days I really feel like a fool
Because you don’t deserve
To have somebody think about you.
I feel so stupid ’cause I let myself down.
I acted like a motherfucking clown
At a circus
On the outskirts of town.
You don’t have to pretend to care.
You don’t have to say things that you don’t mean.
It just embarrasses me
And makes you look like a fool.
Grant comes up for air with ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’ and ‘Ernest Borgnine,’ though when you learn that these are about a friend who committed suicide and Grant’s own diagnosis with HIV respectively, you realize that there’s little respite for him from himself. The last track even has him singing, “Y’know, I hate this fuckin’ town, you cannot even leave your fuckin’ house, without running into someone who no longer cares about you…” all over a jaunty, oompah-oompah rhythm.
It’s important to restate, amongst all this talk of darkness and despair, how astoundingly beautiful Grant’s voice is – by turns high and honey-sweet, or richly mellow, or bitter and smooth as dark chocolate – and the ability to colour his voice like this means there’s nothing he can’t convey, especially when combined with his genius for poetry. Whilst his music doesn’t fit any stereotyped categorization of gay music, the songs are distinctly queer, with the bent of a man who has struggled with his sexuality, his addictions, his demons, and continues to do so. His gift is that he lets us listen in, and the privilege is all ours.