When John Grant was nominated for “Best International Act” at last year’s Brit Awards it seemed like the latest improbable chapter in an increasingly surreal biography. Here was an unorthodox, confessional singer-songwriter and pianist, raised in Colorado and now based in Reykjavik; a gay man who looks like a rather benign Viking; a recovering alcoholic and coke-addict who speaks five languages; a middle-aged man who announced his HIV-positive status at a Royal Festival Hall gig; who co-wrote a Eurovision Song Contest entry, who toured the UK with a symphony orchestra. And here he was, at a major award ceremony, on a shortlist with Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake, Eminem and Drake.
It seems even more improbable given that Grant was well into his forties before he’d reached any kind of success. After breaking up his underachieving alt-rock sextet The Czars, his first solo album, 2010’s Queen Of Denmark, was a piece of ’70s FM rock, recorded with Texan folk-rockers Midlake. His second, 2013’s Pale Green Ghosts, was a piece of dark, ’80s-style synth pop, made with Icelandic producer Biggi Veira from the band Gus Gus.
LP number three – recorded in Dallas over four weeks with the producer behind Franz Ferdinand and St Vincent – should thus take us into the 1990s, but it’s actually an ambitious exercise in decade blending. There are lush ’70s ballads, all pounding piano, cinematic strings and Stevie Wonder-style Moog bass. There are taut pieces of minimal funk, powered by Roger Troutman-style squelch-bass riffs. There are pieces of hypnotic synth pop pitched somewhere between Kraftwerk, Yazoo and an ’80s horror movie soundtrack.
The unifying factor comes with the album being bookended by one of the most famous passages from the Bible, the meditation on love from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (“Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast”, and so on) – read in a variety of accents and languages. Grant, who has talked about how his deeply religious family told him he’d burn in hell for his sexuality, sees the entire album as a meditation on the nature of love. Where his first two albums were from a darker place – inspired by a string of dysfunctional and abusive relationships – here Grant seems to be writing from a position of happiness and optimism.
“Grey Tickles” is the rather delightful Icelandic term for a mid-life crisis, while “Black Pressure” is the literal Turkish translation for a nightmare – and the title track tries to put Grant’s middle-aged nightmare into some perspective. “There are children who have cancer/I can’t compete with that” he sighs in a baritone that’s as thick as his beard, over chugging “Strawberry Fields” Mellotrons and woozy strings.
Indeed, it’s these big ballads that see Grant positively confronting his demons. “No More Tangles” – pitched somewhere between a James Bond theme and a Mediterranean ballad – sees Grant confronting the abusive relationships with “narcissistic queers” that were, for him, a form of Stockholm Syndrome, a place where “emotions turn into lies like black turns into blue”. “Global Warming” is a kiss-off to America’s heavily armed “troglodytes” and climate-change sceptics (“All we’ve got are First World problems/I guess I’d better get some of the Third World kind”). Best of all is “Geraldine”, an epic, dramatic, six-and-a-half-minute ballad dedicated to the ballsy method actress Geraldine Page (“Geraldine/Tell me that you didn’t have to put up with this shit”).
He can also do playful synth pop, which is where the mood shifts from melancholy to mischief. “Disappointed”, a duet with Tracey Thorn, is piece of bubblegum funk that puts an ironic twist on the “My Favourite Things”-style list song: here the wonders of the world (“Francis Bacon and the Dolomites/Ballet dancers with or without tights”) are mere disappointments compared to the beauty of a loved one. “Voodoo Doll” is a heart-warming love letter to a clinically depressed friend (“I made a voodoo doll of you/And I gave it some chicken soup”). “Snug Slacks” is a twitchy, minimalist slice of electro where Grant plays a creepy and rather hopeless lothario, while “You & Him” (a duet with Amanda Palmer) is a gleefully childish piece of name-calling directed at someone who’s made his life a misery (“you and Hitler ought to get together/You ought to learn to knit and wear matching sweaters”).
Sometimes the soul-baring is almost painful, and you might wince at Grant’s verbose open letters to old lovers. But part of Grant’s appeal is his ability to unashamedly go places where others dare not. His finest album yet.
You begin and end the album with St Paul’s meditation on love from Corinthians. Is this something from your religious background that resonated?
Definitely. It’s something I’ve heard all my life, branded onto my brain. And, by bookending the album with that passage, I’m saying: here’s what I was told about love, and here’s what I actually experienced. Love needs to be kind, gentle, respectful and nurturing. But, when we can’t love ourselves, we allow people to mistreat us, to the point when you can’t feel normal unless you are being treated horribly. What I experienced was crazy, out-of-hand lust; drama, envy, exaggerated, overblown situations. It took a lot of learning to have the mature, loving, reciprocal relationship that I have now.
These seem to be very personal songs. Are you playing a character on any of these tracks?
Not on any of them. On “Magma Arrives” and “Geraldine”, I may be regressing to a much younger version of myself. On “Snug Slacks” I’m a confident but slightly clueless sleazeball who thinks he’s got it going on. But really, these are all different parts of my character. Thing is, one’s character changes from moment to moment, day to day. It would be nice to be more consistent, but it’s tough – you have to stay vulnerable enough to be an artist, but also keep up those protective walls and have a tough enough skin to deal with the world.
How did the collaboration with Tracey Thorn come about for the single “Disappointing”?
She came to my Royal Festival Hall show in London and I met her at the aftershow, where I was able to gush at her and say she’s been a huge voice in my life for three decades. We hit it off and exchanged emails. I was over the moon when she agreed to be on the album, because her voice really is like a warm blanket. In fairness, I’d also describe Mark E Smith’s voice as a warm blanket too. Only a slightly more prickly, rough, woollen blanket.
Some of this is seriously funky! Were you listening to a lot of Prince?
Yeah, I always loved Prince. And Grandmaster Flash’s The Message is one of the greatest songs of all time – beautiful synth work and beats, and the flow of the lyrics is amazing. I suppose that I used to think, ‘Oh, you’re not allowed to touch that area, ’cos you’re not black, you have to leave it to the people who “have rhythm”.’ No fuck it, I’ve got rhythm, I can play funk. Which I should have learned from my favourite album, Nina Hagen’s Nunsexmonkrock – something makes it clear that you can do what the hell you want, and it doesn’t matter what anybody says.
INTERVIEW: JOHN LEWIS
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