Down the back of Truman’s Brewery, John Grant is tonight an omnipresent, his name inescapable as Bowie’s The Next Day artwork was over the weekend. The walls covered in posters quite rightly advertising his splendid Pale Green Ghosts record released just yesterday, and his name radiantly illumined above the entrance to Rough Trade East, his is the queue which spews forth.
It’s bitterly gelid out, though the onetime Czar now commands an utmost adoration. A couple came over from Portugal just to see him sell out Heaven in twenty-four hours’ time, so there’s a not insubstantial amount of dedication mixed in as well though tonight, it’s the turn of the dreaded instore. An inherently intimate, and with it regularly problematic ambience the whites of eyes are magnified, and every wry smirk or inopportune snigger becomes that bit more audible to both artist and fellow observer alike. Yet from the moment Grant materialises, we’re stupefied silent – “completely incapacitated” by his transatlantic charm, and held rapt by the instrument he uses with such precision.
His voice is a thing of bristly wonder – a worldweary, though still vivacious thing with almost a life of its own – not least as we set about wondering as to how such a loveably reticent chap could call upon such an unnaturally grand, though simultaneously homely vocal. It’s ornate as an opera house, yet comforting as that sofa which still has the nebulous shape of your adolescent self imprinted into its threadbare cushions, and never more so than on Vietnam. “Your silence is a weapon/ It’s like a nuclear bomb” he shushes lithely, and indeed there’s an eerie concentration pervading the room. I mean usually these sorts of shows are predominated by apathy, but this is instead powered by that unerring devotion aforementioned as words tumble out from agape mouths to songs pulled exclusively from an album released only this week. These are undoubtedly the species of unerring acolyte – the “lovely people all over this lovely world” – to which he so passionately refers in an inimitably mellow, caramel tone during a deftly pared back It Doesn’t Matter To Him.
And there’s a certain sense of exclusivity to tonight – or this late afternoon, rather – as Grant was destined for bigger things and brighter stages from the moment he released his solo début in the spring of 2010. He may here lament the loss of his AAA pass – the modern-day Kejserens nye Klæder, if you will – which subsequently renders the songsmith invisible to some ambiguous lover or other, though were he to cherish each and every one stuck to his torso from now on, he’d surely be able to compile a Biblical annal of the bloody things sooner rather than later. However this one is not only intimately elitist, but so too enlightening as stripped of the smutty, and sporadically overwrought electro in which his latest is veneered, these takes assume a raw complexion – they become that bit more human. And given the grim, though still fresh revelations of recent times, it’s initially as discomfiting as it is inspiring to have him back here with us. That is to say that HIV is an affliction the Occident is largely shielded from; a contagion rarely caught, which is instead kept at arm’s length and ensnared by the screens we usually so unwaveringly affix ourselves to.
It is as such that GMF sounds quite so defiant: on record, its wilting guitar strikes a chord redolent of that which first spawns Robbie Williams’ Angels though live, it becomes that bit more supernal still. “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” and though he may not be admitted into the Elysian Fields with language grubby as that, it’s a wondrously intransigent sentiment regardless. It so too makes you realise how resilient Grant is both mentally and corporeally – he’s a strapping lad, the top of his hatted head so high up amid the exposed piping and undressed ventilators above that he seems almost Brobdingnagian on his feet.
“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” he continues, our closeness to him making for a momentarily uncomfortable predicament. Grant himself, however, appears at ease both in mind and in music throughout, and as Mad World keys roll around his droll, self-deprecating observations he purveys himself as an inspiring artist empoweringly disinterested by whatever the current musical climate may blow our way. I would say he’s uncaring, though such diligence has been pumped into his craft that he is nigh on the carnal antithesis of indifference. And although his voice may at times sound deflated while at others altogether defeated, there’s a sense of quiet triumph brooding; a liberating inattention to style, as he instead plumps for an irrefutably stimulating sort of substance. And this is, perhaps inadvertently, precisely the kind of environment in which he thrives, the humorous intricacies of his latest elucidated almost when heard in person: the supremely human confusion engendered by the dire formalities of “death and tax forms”; the exhuming of “Richard Burton’s corpse” required to play Grant in the movie ever gurning on in his mind, in which he of course plays the central protagonist. Though whereas with Queen of Denmark these were tinged only infrequently with dejection, it is entirely rife throughout Pale Green Ghosts, and satire meets with sadness on a gloriously poignant I Hate This Town, its star vividly bumping into a partner to have spurned him previously. “So you observe the strict rules laid out in the books of etiquette/ And tell me you hope I enjoy my steak” he denotes with a stark dryness caught on his voice, his deep exhalations and direct assurances that “I wasn’t here when I wrote it” only endearing us to it yet further.
It’s prefaced by quirky anecdotes of aspiring to the Agnetha Fältskog duets as yet only afforded Gary bloody Barlow, and a jocular explication of how the song was first inspired by ABBA’s Chiquitita – it’s “that same bass line, and then you throw some fuckin’ fucks in there” – though pulled through by a brilliantly expressive piece of cabaret honky tonk, courtesy of enduring pianist Chris Pemberton. And though the show is part self-effacing standup; part self-assured vocal recital with each element as maddeningly immaculate as the other, its accompaniment is commensurately impeccable as Pemberton’s fingers prom the ivories with unquestionable aplomb. That the two reduce these pieces to flatulent modulations offset only by porcelain keys, thus rendering both the album’s surly title track and the tumid underground house of Blackbelt impossibilities could otherwise disappoint though in an age of overstatement, understatement is tonight quite exemplarily involving.
For this is Pale Green Ghosts coming to life. Noiselessly; naturally. And as the sombre motionlessness of Glacier – an anthemic climax inspired by “driving past… um… a glacier” up in Iceland – veers subtly; beautifully into earshot, he’s found at his affecting best. It’s chilling, as it tingles up the vertebrae like a doleful wrought tankard clanged plaintively against the bars of incarceration. It’s sorrowful, though as with much of this evening, so too is it victorious. And though he’s gone on a winsome wink a bit like a puff of theatrical smoke, we’ll continue to voyage unquestioningly from far and wide to bask in his living genius.