John Grant - Pale Green Ghosts

There is this feeling that erupts when you're trawling over the internet and you discover someone you love is playing your city for not much money. It feels like a heart attack almost, pressure in your chest and a slight tingle in the extremeties, and as you fumble with your credit card and simultaneously pray it hasn't been sold out you wonder how in god's name you're going to survive the month long wait between now and the concert. I had that with John Grant.

MOJO crowned Queen Of Denmark it's best album of 2010, and it was certainly one of mine. A record wracked with brutal honesty, sheepish dry wit and the undeniable Texan folk of Midlake, it propelled Grant to the dizzying height of positive critical reception. His back story is well documented, and there is one particular point I will make strongly. Confidence.

When I went and saw his performance in March 2011 I took 2 friends. We left after his first four songs.. Apart from The Tallest Man On Earth, I hadn't encountered such a poor stage presence. Grant was reluctant to look at the audience, his monotone rendered his stories and anecdotes inert, his overall musical performance was stripped back but without feeling and emotion. It wasn't a man going through the motions, it was a man still coming to terms with a drastic change in circumstance. Before Midlake gently coaxed him in to the record (and basically nursed him through the project) Grant was in a dangerous place. The result was a trip to hospital once the record was recorded due to his suicidal nature, and the undertones were flowing freely on that night in March. This was still a broken man, and it was devastating to see. There was no fascination as there can be at times with witnessing someone elses rock bottom. It was unadulterated depth, and I thought I shall never hear much from John Grant again.

Pale Green Ghosts begins with the title track and a distinct Kraftwerk vibe. Synths surround you as fat electronics boom confidently out. Grant enters, with typical grace and poise, and delivers a jounryemans description of yearning, longing for a past that isn't necessarily brighter, but more care-free, 'Warm late spring's wind whips through my hair  / I am right here, but want to be there  / And no one in this world is gonna stop me'. It pulses forwards on the back of what at first appears to be clumsy, 80s electronics but the simplicity and the theatrcial thunder claps add severity and coldness to the song. Grant may appear determined, but by the second verse he is walled in, resigned and providing advice for those living a less dark existance than him. Down, but defiant.

Defiance is something that was lacking on his first record. It was playful, even malicious at times (Silver Platter Club), yet the lack of confidence meant that these emotions could not be gathered in to a full frontal assault on the issues clearly plaguing Grant. On Pale Green Ghosts we're finally treated to the missing link: Confidence. Black Belt partners an almost hip-hop drum machine loop with more out of space electrics as Grant demolishes someone elses confidence, 'You think you're mysterious, you cannot be serious / You got lots of time to think of new ways to deceive yourself'. It's joyful, I've already written my list of people to send this song to.. Even when he is more introspective of his own romantic shortcomings, Vietnam, he delivers barbs that stick and hurt. Detailing a toxic personal relationship, he manages to bemoan his own actions and then attack his partners, 'Your silence is a weapon / It's like a nuclear bomb / It's like the agent orange  / They used in Vietnam. THAT is a devastating line. Comparing passive aggressive behaviour to such catastrophic events is brutally impactful, and its the mark of a man confident enough (finally) to really let loose, to recognise his own failings but that they aren't limited to him.

To make this record, Grant moved to that magically blessed country known as Iceland, a place that has spawned it's own special brand of music that appears as though it's been sprinkled with pixie dust. Local producer Birgir ├×├│rarinsson stamps his authority all over Pale Green Ghosts. His previous project, Gus Gus, was an interesting mix of Everything But The Girl and Erasure. Add to this the influence of Sinead O'Connor, present on 3 songs, and the origins of Pale Green Ghosts becomes even clearer. Their guidance sees Pale Green Ghosts travel tentatively down the EDM path, but no further than the first gas station. Grant employed synths in Queen Of Denmark, but nothing like this. Sensitive New Age Guy is a throbbing Euro-dance number, complete with M83 levels of atmospheric noise (pre-Hurry Up). Why Don't You Love Me Anymore is something even more epic, it's almost a Deep House track, with echoes of a build up reminiscient of Scooter. The industrial, hard-edged sounds at the end lend potency to the stunning picture painted by Grant, one of desperation and pain at the breakdown of an all-ecompassing relationship. He slices with 'The knowledge that I can't be what you need / Is cutting off my air supply / And yet this information hasn't reached my heart / And that's why I still try'. It's instantly relatable and yet somehow even more inaccessible for that, if you tried to interact with it and enter his shoes you'd be overwhelmed. 'I don't know that much about guns / But I feel like I've been shot by one'.

We're still treated to his humourous and more light hearted side, but it is notably muted. Rather than a more outward display, Grant lets his delivery and odd combinations showcase it. On I Hate This Town he sounds relaxed and almost careless, but he contrasts this with a song about being trapped and hemmed in to a town and even a mindset that has long ceased to be a source of enjoyment or positive feeling. It could concievably explain his relocation to the relative isolation of Iceland. More often than not though he is stuck on serious. It Doesn't Matter To Him is more of a standard ballad, a lovely smooth groove that fills the air with acoustic guitar, strong bass and slow but purposeful percussion. Again, the mourning of un-returned, unrequited love, almost teenage-esque in its message 'It doesn't matter to him / I could be anything  / But I could never win his heart again'. If you joined the Grant fan club to be an optimist you're in the wrong place.

So we come to the source of much internal pain for Grant. Recently he was diagnosed as HIV positive. It is addressed in depth on the stunning Ernest Borgnine, a 5 minute electronic exorcism where Grant addresses himself from a rational and measured perspective rather than the rampant fear and panic that must be marauding inside. Lines like 'Sorry that you think you had it rough in the first world' and 'Dad keep looking at me says I got the disease / Now what did you expect, you spent your life on your knees' are brutally honest and difficult to swallow, even for a passive observer. His ability to step outside such a devastating mindset and deliver this is testament to a truly mature human being. The song is drenched in synth, the chorus employing dramatically altered vocals to produce this eery, spacey effect that eliminates emotion, purposefully I would suggest.

He saves the emotion for the stunning, gleaming final track, Glacier. A piano and some rising strings are all Grant needs here to paint a masterpiece of pain and suffering, and honest thought. Detailing his disease, how he is percieved by those around him, and even doling out crucial advice to those in a similar situation (gargantuan, considering the inner turmoil he must have), Glacier is stacked with pain. The weight behind his voice as it soars in to the chorus is chilling, 'This pain it is a glacier moving through you / And carving out deep valleys / And creating spectacular landscapes', he throws himself in to it. The perfect track to end a great record.

8.5/10. Grant delivers a side-step, but a highly enjoyable and emotionally educational one. The confidence he now displays manifests itself in both positive and negative ways. The electro-focus is overbearing at times, you feel he is in his element with a more simple philosophy, where his excellent voice can propel tracks. However, on tracks like Ernest Borgnine and It Doesn't Matter To Him they complement the feel of the songs perfectly. It's an extremely good, engaging listen, and I daresay it will grow on you even more as the year progresses.
Best Tracks: Glacier, Ernest Borgnine, I Hate This Town


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