Former Czar’s emotionally raw second – Sinead sings backing…
John Grant is not a man of mystery. In the interviews around the release of his startling 2010 debut album Queen Of Denmark, the former leader of The Czars talked with bracing honesty about his homosexuality, his battle to overcome addictions to booze and drugs, his flirtations with suicide. He told us his mordant love songs were about a guy named Charlie. And then Grant topped all that by using an appearance at last Summer’s Meltdown festival in London with friends Hercules And Love Affair to announce to a shocked audience that he is HIV-positive.
But Pale Green Ghosts, which takes its name from a song inspired by the Colorado drives young Grant would take to new wave clubs along a Denver to Boulder road lined by Russian olive trees, also betrays the confidence Grant has taken from the ecstatic reaction to the Midlake-produced Queen Of Denmark. Still, the album’s a big ask: specifically, he’s asking still relatively new fans to travel with him from bucolic Texas to his current creative base of Reykjavik and the quintessentially European electronica of Gus Gus’s Biggi Veira, co-producer of these eleven emotionally raw new songs.
The lyrics are still dominated by witty, raging and self-immolating open letters to the chronically passive-aggressive Charlie, and the presence of Midlake rhythm section McKenzie Smith and Paul Alexander ensures that the album is roughly split between Grant’s familiar, ‘70s John Lennon-meets-John Cale balladry and the kind of stark industrial electro-pop that Grant was travelling along that tree-lined road to dance to back in the ‘80s. Little did he imagine, as he danced to “Mandinka”, that its maker Sinead O’Connor would be providing backing vocals on his records twenty-five years later, as she does on three of the songs here.
The title track opens the album and introduces the listener to Grant’s new direction, his burnished croon bathed in reverb over the burbling, stark and discreetly disco analog synth backing, coming on somewhere between James Murphy and Clues-era Robert Palmer. It’s a style that works perfectly on “Ernest Borgnine” where Grant addresses his health in self-lacerating verses (“Now what did you expect/You spent your life on your knees”) while the chorus echoes the debut album’s “Sigourney Weaver”; a surreal juxtaposition and an escape into the melodramas and removed realities of the movies and actors Grant loves.
The most purely beautiful song, based largely on acoustic guitar but enhanced by a ghostly Moog solo, is “It Doesn’t Matter To Him”, where Grant confesses that, despite a life of music, friends, family and sobriety, the grief over lost love, the final knowledge that “I am invisible to him”, invades every waking thought. But the song which, one suspects, is destined to be Grant’s anthem is “GMF”, another stately non-electronic ballad in which Grant declares, in an irresistible, unforgettable chorus, that he is ‘”The greatest motherfucker that you’re ever gonna meet.” It’s a masterpiece of narcissism laced with bathos, as Grant digs up Richard Burton’s corpse to play him in the inevitable movie, and concludes, as he analyses the reasons why he is not the King of the world, that “I should have practiced my scales/I should not be attracted to males”.
The abrupt changes between lush vintage balladry and stark electro ensure that Pale Green Ghosts is not as instantly cohesive as Queen Of Denmark. But it is arguably more satisfying, in its artistic courage, its refusal to meet expectations, and its willingness to paint a brand new picture of a gay demi-monde where the triumphs and tragedies have a deeper resonance than simple melodrama or camp.
It also lets us know that, whatever Grant does next, it will surprise and provoke because, even though its maker is 43-years-old, he is only on the beginning of a journey to find himself, in his art as in his troubled, chaotic life. You never know, perhaps album three will find someone to accuse that isn’t Charlie. The poor guy’s ears must be burnt to a crisp by now.
Why so much synthesizer on Pale Green Ghosts?
Because I love synthesizers more than anything in the whole world. Is Vince Clarke the prime influence? Well, I listened the shit out of the two Yazoo albums when they came out. But I also love New Order, Cabaret Voltaire, Chris And Cosey and Yello.
“Ernest Borgnine” is the one song where you directly address the fact that you are HIV positive. Did you really meet him?
Yes, and I was really delighted. He was Hollywood royalty. Amazing face, amazing voice… one of the greatest American character actors. The verses deal with the fact that I got HIV after I became sober, so I felt like there was no excuse. To still go out and make this horrible mistake was like, “Did you have to add this to the fucking mess?”
The painful break-up songs concern the same ex-lover that you were singing about on Queen Of Denmark. But it seems like you’re shouting at a brick wall…
Yeah. His motto was that he didn’t want to say things to hurt me so he didn’t say anything. Which I found much more hurtful than being told to fuck off. It affected me so deeply because it was the first relationship I experienced after I got sober. It was raw for me because I couldn’t just do a bunch of blow off some guy’s hard cock.
In last month’s Uncut, Sinead O’Connor said that, if you ever decided to be straight, she was “oiled up and ready for you.” Tempted?
Ha! Absolutely. I would give it a whirl.
INTERVIEW: GARRY MULHOLLAND