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In the few years since John Grant’s quite singular solo debut, Queen of Denmark, a couple appropriations of his music have solidified its context. First the British movie Weekend was an unsentimental, heartbreaking romance in the Grant style, and its use of his “TC and Honeybear” and “Marz” was a certain signal that it strived for a sense of honesty equal to his. Then, last year, Sinead O’Connor covered his “Queen of Denmark,” turning it into a big rock song, harnessing the energy of every caustic line. It immediately suggested O’Connor and Grant as artistic peers. Ever since, I’ve yearned to hear Grant sing “Nothing Compares 2 U,” though I worry I’m being a bit too obvious in this desire, or willfully ignoring his tendency to stand up vindicated against his own ex-lovers. Now O’Connor shows up to sing backing vocals on a few songs from his new Pale Green Ghosts. It’s fate, I guess, but he’s earned it.
She’s there on his meaner, prouder statement of weakness, the great, great, great “GMF,” whose title provides this month’s most itching new acronym, along with Deerhunter’s “T.H.M.,” though this one’s mystery is answered right away by the lyrics (hint: it’s a lot like Prince’s “Sexy MF,” with a devastating triumph in Grant’s refusal to acknowledge any kind of irony). As for the “F”: No one else uses the f-word the way Grant does. In fact, he’s the only person who knows how to sing it, rather than speak or shout it. It’s one of the most memorable things about him, for better or worse. He employs a variety of the word for the chorus, and the words that follow are pretty selfish and cruel, on their surface. But the melody is so good it shifts the cruelty to everyone else, and Grant is the righteous guy who somehow endured. “I overanalyze and over-think things, yes it’s a nasty crutch,” he sings early on, and the rest of the song, like all his songs, is a window to that overactive mind, crippled by intelligent thought. He writes in monologue, composed of the ways people justify their lives to themselves, then delivers it in the clear manner we rarely hear outside our own heads. It’s the kind of thing that’s not often allowed as a valid approach to songwriting, and it’s not, necessarily, except when there’s a craft to it. His lyrics might be uncensored, inadmissible, but a great life form oversees them.
On “GMF,” all of this is bolstered by a brand of stately pop held over from Queen of Denmark (another great thing Grant keeps doing is answering the question, what would Harry Nilsson be doing today?), this new song being probably the most satisfying example of it so far. But I’m describing this album in the wrong order, as “GMF” is only the buoyant return to old form after two songs of startling musical reinvention. His old backing band, Midlake, is gone, as are his older Czars, and he’s mostly a loner this time, solving this problem for more than half of the album by singing against electronic elements (I daren’t say synths) as cutting as his words and voice. The reinvention is finally not too disorienting, because Grant at least maintains the pointed lyrical style that made his debut so memorable, but neither are the words the only important element. Ghosts is no casual synth pop foray from some guy who needs an easy backing for his songs and doesn’t know what else to use. This is a serious use of new sounds, confident and patient, resulting in real music, not just window dressing (a phrase Grant might use in a moment of self-doubt).
The grand announcement of his change of method, right away on the opening title track, is pretty jaw dropping, as harsh and immediate as anything on the new Knife album. Later, instrumental passages push forward into long moments of almost-nothingness and it seems Grant will just forget his voice altogether and try to recreate Chromatics’ Kill for Love. “Sensitive New Age Guy,” the outlier of the album’s second, more ethereal electronic section, is the only song that could maybe be called synth pop. Grant plays a young punk, showing off his dance music production skills, altering his vocals, remaining accusatory in the third person. More recognizable, “You Don’t Have To” keeps a steady, subdued groove until it pauses for a simple electronic solo composed of little happy waves, offering the pure emotion of certain shapeless machine sounds. The song becomes his equivalent of OMD’s “International,” Bowie’s “Sound and Vision,” Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” The Beach Boys’ “Wendy,” etc. The man who owns such a sound is the man who wins, plain and simple.
Still, certain victories aside, Grant remains a pretty uncertain guy, the type who just can’t stop being unfair to himself, comparing himself to movie stars, etc. On Queen of Denmark’s “Sigourney Weaver,” the only available analogy for his emotional state was the actress in peril, battling aliens. All the actors he might identify with on the new album are dead, but he does the best he can with this fact. On “GMF” he wonders who would play him in a movie (always a fruitful question for a song; remember Sloan’s “Set In Motion”?), and concludes, “Maybe they could dig up Richard Burton’s corpse” (not a bad idea). And on “Ernest Borgnine,” he keeps wondering what Ernie would do. It’s funny though. He confesses to having been “beaten down by constant doubt, depression and confusion,” but however true that is in his early 40s, he’s now such a commanding singer and songwriter (and musician; don’t forget the music) that he’s gonna have a lot of listeners thinking about their lives in terms of his.
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