Once a lowly Czar, Denverite John Grant swiftly drifted upstream along the bloodline to become the idiosyncratic king of droll melodrama with his 2010 début solo effort, Queen of Denmark. Between now and then, he’s diligently worked away with the once seemingly incompatible Andy Butler of Hercules and Love Affair over in Berlin, worked his way around the reality of being diagnosed HIV-positive, and temporarily relocated to Reykjavik in order to put together both he himself and this, the natural successor to his initial endeavour. And for all the trauma and sea change to have potentially perturbed the 44-year-old since his Queen of Denmark was first esteemed as one of the crowning works of its time, Pale Green Ghosts is an aptly opalescent record though one which is both overwhelmingly well equilibrated as an album, and Grant’s irrefutable opus thus far.
For Pale Green Ghosts is the sound of a man at peace with the coming-to-terms tropes of the emotionally turbulent and sporadically truculent début, as he thematically scampers back to his adolescence and to the “incapacitating rage, letting go and acceptance” it evokes. And “You think I hate myself/ It’s you I hate/ Because you have the nerve to make me feel” he’ll impeccably croon midway through GMF – a startlingly brilliant propagating of the pursuit of happiness via the evading of he himself. Though similarly, gone are the jejune interventions of Midlake, as it is instead Biggi Veira of queer Icelandic avant-pop collective GusGus with whom Grant collaborates so extensively throughout and so too sonically, the sound of the sexually unsure is here interchanged with the nitty grit of synthesisers and the rakish salaciousness of the ’80s club scene.
Take the meaty undulations of its opening title track: not only do his sturdily wrought words veer off in an altogether darker direction (“Pale green ghosts at the end of me/ Soldiers of this black highway/ Helping me to know my place”, he potently exhales in a tone that is as worldweary as it is robotic), but so too the music has evolved. Mutated, even. It’s adopted an intricacy hitherto unprecedented, as these caustic electronics meet with harsh brass and supple minimal rhythms. The surges of the elegantly symphonic then crash in like a barrage of bracing North Atlantic waves savagely hammering against the southeasternmost coast of the album’s country of conception.
Grant has grown up, as its artwork intimates in depicting its author sat in a wood-panelled café, latte steaming upon the table and an open book perched open in his left hand. A mitt itself imposing as most weatherbeaten oaks, it’s almost as though a lectern and Grant is its preacher. He looks disquieted as might a clergyman heckled mid-sermon, and certainly there is an element of us intruding into the introspection within. Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore is certainly one such instance of autobiographical intimacy, as Grant laments: “My friends all say that you’re no good/ That you’re not fair to shine my shoes/ They say that you are not the calibre of men/ That I deserve to have”, his deep vocal intertwined with an unhinged other to suggest a certain schizophrenia akin to the Eurythmics’ off-kilt pop disconcertion.
It may sound like an inevitable parallel to design, though it is but one of umpteen that can be traced throughout the often suitably spectral gelidity of Pale Green Ghosts. And this is of intrigue, for Grant himself deems this one to be something of a documentation of his rapidly developing taste in music way back when – of his personal aural voyage through from ABBA and The Carpenters to the Eurythmics, and Devo, and Depeche Mode, and Yazoo, and Scritti Politti, and ABC; Ultravox, Kraftwerk, XTC, Chris and Cosey, Sinead O’Connor and Cocteau Twins – all of which can be identified as influential architects of at least one moment or another. (O’Connor incidentally features as that unhinged other, or the Annie Lennox to Grant’s Dave Stewart on the Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore aforementioned, whilst the record is itself this week released via onetime Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde’s Bella Union label.)
Though this is so much more rewarding than a mere reminiscence of alternative musical histories – it’s a man and his music recomposed and repositioned right back at the forefront of contemporary invention: Blackbelt, hauled along by a Day-Glo techno undertow, smacks of Butler’s upbringing and dingy enlightenment in the underground hovels of Manhattan though transposes this into a typically sardonic, scathing dismissal of a virtuoso bullshitter who, “silly and ridiculous”, sets about Etch A Sketching its way out of an untenable predicament. Sensitive New Age Guy, meanwhile, strips away the “BS” to play off the compulsively violent electroclash of early DM, Grant rapping à la James Murphy whilst impressionistically rhyming Salvador Dalí with Public Enemy. Its chorus a dizzying rehash of Dead Or Alive’s You Spin Me Round (Like A Record) and Kraftwerk’s The Robots – a serendipitously euphoric conflation, if ever there were one – it not only illustrates the vibrancy of Grant’s palette, but so too demonstrates the dexterity with which he is able to employ and manipulate it.
With its machinist lyrics of numbers and calculators, the ominous humming of Ernest Borgnine again recalls the latter (albeit enwrapped in a less effectual context) though glimpses of past mastery remain: the Queen of Denmark rears her winsome head for the majestically subdued synth-pop of Vietnam, on which Air-y instrumentation meets with John Barry orchestration with Grant contending: “To say that I’m a man undone/ Is understatement at its worst/ I was completely incapacitated by your Southern charm/ It hit me like an ancient gypsy curse.” Whether this be the weird and wondrous musics disinterred during his formative years or another ambiguous lover we can’t be entirely sure, though it certainly makes for an infatuating listen. I Hate This Town so too plays into the charm of Grant’s previous, as it recalls the understated splendour of Rufus Wainwright, ABC and Scritti Politti absolutely simultaneously.
However it’s when this ebbs serenely into the jubilant seven, thirty-four of Glacier that John makes his most emphatic, and indeed symphonic statement of intent yet – an unusually buoyant ballad replete with floating lines of “spectacular landscapes” and commensurately breathtaking gales of genteel violin, it makes that same lasting impression as might an Arctic gust. It’s bristling with human sensation; with the irrepressibly affecting tingle of polar chill on rose petal-pigmented cheeks. Fitting, then, that it should end with an avalanche of cascading piano keys that sound as though the ebonies and ivories to render the Proms so revered drizzled out of an upturned Royal Albert Hall one by one, and they have every last hair standing to attention, deferentially applauding one of the most unquestionably reputable prodigies of the contemporary.
Unorthodoxy is Grant’s convention, and Pale Green Ghosts is the sound of transition; of transitory feeling, and the transformation of teen impulses into effective impacts. As a collection, it makes for a scatty pack though conceptually, it nothing if not neatly encapsulates the incertitudes and general disarray of growing up. And though we may frivolously shed our adolescence, this is another we’ll cherish long into adulthood and beyond.
Released: March 11th, 2013 [Bella Union]