One might expect John Grant to emerge from lockdown like a butterfly from a cocoon – fragile but effortlessly fabulous. Any hopes of the electro visionary having used the pandemic to up his showman game to the level of his photo shoots, and formulating a spectacle resembling the wedding party of Wayne Coyne and Alison Goldfrapp, however, are quickly dashed. Grant’s recent fifth solo album The Boy From Michigan was a beautifully reflective work of childhood autobiography and national disgrace, and Grant’s accompanying show begins suitably restrained; initially static and subdued. No futuristic birdmen or neon-painted cybermen here, just men in black riffling in electronic boxes for one of the greatest canons of the modern age.
It’s a snowball of a set. Early cuts from …Michigan such as “The Rusty Bull” are all minimalist electronic and anti-colour; “Best In Me”, with Grant’s vocals fed through retro effects, could be the sound of LCD Soundsystem trapped deep in glacial ice. It’s only with “Black Belt” that Grant begins striking cock rock poses and firing up synth rave maelstroms. Then the sonic wit surfaces with “Rhetorical Figure”, Grant whiplashing between deep bass and falsetto and pulling muscle stress poses as the song descends into its onomatopoeia-laden climax, all “wap”s, “splat”s and “gurgle”s. For the first half an hour it seems like Grant is rebuilding his entire musical character from scratch before our eyes.
Key to which, of course, are regular stints at the piano, indulging his impression of Billy Joel or Leonard Cohen playing the songs of Victoria Wood. “I did not think I was the one being addressed/In hemorrhoid commercials on the TV set,” he deadpans on the opening lines of “Grey Tickles, Black Pressure”, his self-deprecation helping to offset the horrors of a song which unravels like a tragi-comic poem, a paean of confusion and despair at an unfair and godless world. AIDS, the Middle East, children with cancer and the exploding head scene from Scanners all intermingle in his own, more personal “Murder Most Foul”.
By the closing third, the engines really ignite. Many bands have inadvertently written ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All” again and thought they were the first; only Grant’s “Queen Of Denmark”, though, with its gruesome bursts of fuzz noise dotted throughout, makes it sound like it’s being constructed in an industrial smelting plant. “Glacier”, meanwhile, is a sublime ode of synthetic strings and therapeutic self-help metaphors: “this pain is a glacier moving through you…creating spectacular landscapes”. A spot of Bond-sized electronica and Grant rounds up with stunning piano epic “GMF” – “I am the greatest motherfucker that you’re ever gonna meet,” he declares. Seconded.