Grant moves onto a dancefloor made for for one on his second solo album
On his astonishing solo debut The Queen of Denmark, John Grant sounded like a sweet-voiced seventies singer with a festering grudge. Think Glen Campbell singing Randy Newman with a few serrated barbs thrown in by the late Bill Hicks.
Grant’s mordant wit often blindsided the listener as his dark, sonorous voice sang of heartache and self-loathing amid instantly melodic tunes which sounded like they’d been written in a haze of nostalgia for the last days of seventies FM radio. Queen of Denmark was full of lovely music alright but Grant's songs of addiction, heartache and self-laceration had that Morrissey-like quality of being very, very serious and very, very funny at the same time.
For the follow up, the 44-year-old from Michigan has parted ways with Midlake, the Texan band who provided the beguiling soft rock sound of his debut, and teamed up with Icelandic producer Biggi Veira of the constantly evolving dance act Gus Gus. This embrace of modulated synths, dark keyboards and skittering beats in Grant’s adoptive home of Reykjavík signals a move away from the starkly confessional into a morose chill out room or a particularly misanthropic dance floor.
He hasn’t lost any of his intensity as he delivers pithy kiss-offs to the man who broke his heart and confronts the diagnosis of HIV which Grant announced live on stage two years ago but on Pale Green Ghosts, he doesn’t quite cut to the nerve in the same way as the raw and direct Queen of Denmark.
It is still very, very good. It’s just not quite as funny or as memorable. The ambient pulse and spectral electronica tend to carry Grant off into the dark tundra with a scowl. The title track features bold stabs of brass and stark strings as he heaps scorn on his ex and Blackbelt fair sizzles with pure contempt but it’s only when Grant reverts to the exquisite sound of piano and strings that Pale Green Ghosts truly shimmers into life. GMF is undeniably beautiful but hearing lyrics like “I am the greatest mother***** you’ll ever meet” sung in Grant’s flawless baritone is like biting into marsh mellow and tasting arsenic.
Even on the weaker songs when the electronic burbles become too much like sound wash, Grant’s greatness remains in his strong, unafraid voice. Sinéad O'Connor, who covered Queen of Denmark on her last album is here too, lending backing vocals which range from girlish harmonies to a piercing wail of The Lion and The Cobra vintage.
On the closing song Glacier, Grant turns to the landscape of his adopted home and uses natural phenomenon to make his point about emotional pain. He compares his grief to the progress of a vast sheet of ice carving out valleys and sculpting geographical features over thousands of years.
Just in case you were in any doubt, heartache isn’t just for the weekend you know. In anyone else’s hands, Glacier would be self-absorption too far but very few artists share Grant’s talent for singing his soul without sounding mawkish or, worse, boring. He may have changed his sound but Grant’s brutal honesty remains as true and believable as ever on Pale Green Ghosts.