Release Date: May 14, 2013
Record label: Partisan
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Singer/Songwriter
It’s perhaps an interesting quirk of the cross-over success of Weekend that one of the few films to break out of the gay ‘ghetto’ would be one that was uncharacteristically political. For all the low-key earthiness that defined the film’s camp-shirking portrayal of a same-sex love affair, there was a fair amount of discussion as to what the end-game of the equality struggle should be; if a gay lifestyle could ever be entirely compatible with an ever-more tolerant mainstream society, or if such a thing is impossible (or even desirable) thanks to the deep impact the whole process of coming to terms with one’s sexuality will have on a person (and, unfortunately, that’s just the start of it). In a bit of a neat segue, thanks to that film’s borrowing of a couple of tracks from his solo debut, Queen of Denmark, it’s also a question that arises when listening to John Grant’s second album, Pale Green Ghosts.
It is almost impossible to unpick John Grant's music from his personal life. He has suffered homophobic abuse, parental rejection, agoraphobia, depression, drug addiction and alcoholism, and was recently diagnosed HIV positive. His music documents his attempts to overcome his trials, as Dorian Lynskey recently put it in the Observer, "inch by inch, song by song".
As John Grant’s former band The Czars slowly dissolved in the year following their 2004 masterpiece Goodbye, it’s difficult not to imagine that he found himself thinking that it was never going to happen for him. Despite a string of strong albums and some critical acclaim, even the phrase ‘cult appeal’ seems to oversell The Czars’ level of success and after the split Grant disappeared from music. It was a heartening surprise, then, when he returned in 2010 with a solo album, the brilliant Queen Of Denmark, which won critical plaudits and (most importantly) finally garnered him an audience that responded warmly to its wry lyrics and musical blend of MOR rock and alternative folk.
John Grant is one of the most enigmatic, endearing vocalists making music today. That’s a bold statement, certainly; but boldness is a virtue that Grant doles out in droves through candid, insightful and matter-of-fact lyricism so raw at times you nearly forget the breathtaking baritone it’s being delivered through. Pale Green Ghosts, Grant’s second solo album and first since 2010’s brilliant Queen of Denmark, ratchets up his affinities for the somber anti-power ballad, but also showcases a newer sonic territory: that of the ‘80s dance club variety.
The elegance, grandeur and theatricality of Grant’s 2010 solo debut Queen Of Denmark won him many fans – some of whom began vociferously campaigning for him to be given a crack at recording a 007 theme, such was the dramatic atmosphere of his songs. He may still get the gig, should his profile and appeal continue to broaden at the rate it is, but in the meantime he continues to brandish a license to thrill. Much of Pale Green Ghosts will please listeners who fell for the previous album, Grant again indulging in lopsided views of tortured romance (GMF is the love song of the year, but it would be a spoiler to reveal what the initials stand for), couched in seductive and celebratory melodies.
Three songs in, former Czars singer John Grant brands himself “the greatest motherfucker”. You can kinda see what he’s getting at because, for his second album, he’s all but ditched the ’70s soft-rock sound of debut ‘Queen Of Denmark’ in favour of dark ’80s electro. The risk pays off. Grant’s rich voice dovetails beautifully with the silvery synths of ‘GMF’ and ‘Vietnam’, and he gets away with channelling The Human League on ‘Black Belt’.
In essence, core songwriting can rightly elevate a record, with an equal power to decimate. Pale Green Ghosts, the second solo album by John Grant (formerly of The Czars) is an interesting case study in that it’s the type of hit-or-miss record experiencing gentrification, with prime architecture neighboring decrepit lots-by-default. Ultimately, the filet of the block facilitates the ’hood’s population, but it’s a shame that Grant wasn’t more meticulous in his tracklist editing.
On the percolating title track that opens John Grant's second solo album, he sings of "pale green ghosts"-- trees that line the Colorado byways by which he oriented himself, "Helping me to know my place." The line packs a double meaning, as the entire album is Grant mapping exactly where he's at after the fiery dissolution of a relationship with a man who a mere album ago was the one. Grant's route is not complicated-- really just a rough ride to downtown Fuck You and back, his hatred for his ex occasionally outpaced by his own self-loathing. In his previous life, Grant helmed the Czars, giving Denver bragging rights to a decent band in the late 1990s.
For those unfamiliar with John Grant's oft retold back story here's the short version. In 2004 his critically lauded but commercially pinched Denver-based rock band The Czars split, and he retreated further into an oblivion of drink, drugs and self-loathing. After half a decade lost in a bleak wilderness of cocaine, crack and self-destruction, Grant returned to New York and with former labelmates Midlake providing both encouragement and instrumentation, recorded and released the critically lauded Queen Of Denmark.
Former Czars frontman John Grant brings the drama on the embittered follow-up to his widely acclaimed 2010 solo debut, Queen Of Denmark. Last summer, the bearish 44-year-old revealed during a performance at London's Meltdown Festival that he is HIV-positive, one of many subjects he tackles - homophobia, breakups, addiction and aging, among others - with his signature unflinching honesty. Recorded in Iceland with Biggi Veira of electro-pop group GusGus (and featuring Sinéad O'Connor on backing vocals), Pale Green Ghosts is undeniably angry but tempered by the considered introspection that comes with age.
The title track from the ex Czars' frontman's second solo outing, the chilly, electro-kissed Pale Green Ghosts, sounds like a Brendan Perry (of Dead Can Dance)-fronted Kraftwerk taking on a James Bond theme. Like much of the album, it's icy, stylish, pompous, and self-obsessed, which is the direct antithesis, at least sonically, of his previous album, the maudlin, confessional Queen of Denmark, which was made with the help of wistful Texas folk-rockers Midlake. Pale Green Ghosts, on the other hand, was recorded in Reykjavik, Iceland with the help of GusGus' Birgir Þórarinsson (Biggi Veira) and while Grant keeps the microscope firmly on himself throughout the 11-track set, he does so with more wit and panache than he did on the record's predecessor.
Grant's confessional solo debut earned the singer-songwriter the esteem and sales that had eluded his previous band, the Czars. This follow-up to 2010's Queen of Denmark moves his affecting tale of heartbreak on, thematically and stylistically. Where Denmark found the fortysomething auto-eviscerating wryly in the company of Americana-mongers Midlake, Pale Green Ghosts begins as out-and-out electronic pop; Sinéad O'Connor warbles in the background.
Grant swaps pastoral 70s sounds for synth-pop on a stunning second solo LP. Jude Clarke 2013 When The Czars’ frontman John Grant went solo in 2010, the resulting album, Queen of Denmark, was extraordinary. Laying bare his life, his struggles and heartbreak with openness and wit, the album featured Bella Union labelmates Midlake as Grant’s backing band, contributing their pastoral 1970s sound.
For some, the problem with John Grant's second solo album will be the absence of Midlake. Grant's Queen of Denmark was, after all, deemed the best album of 2010 by Mojo, largely because of the lovingly arranged production from Tim Smith and band. Midlake's work incorporated a double hit of 70s pop - folk-rock was on board with the flutes and moody piano, as well as the synth elements of, say, Todd Rundgren.
You’ll probably enjoy this more if you try to forget most of what you know about John Grant. Where the former Czars fellow’s much-lauded solo debut Queen of Denmark employed the stylish MOR rockers Midlake to add a smooth, melodically rich and guitar-heavy musical backdrop to his wry tales of love, loss and death, its follow up bears it almost no musical resemblance, coming across more like Grant fronting ’80s synth popsters Soft Cell than anything one could ever deem a “rock” troupe (it’s actually Icelandic electro wizards GusGus helping him out here). Time spent hanging out with Hercules and Love Affair seems to really have rubbed off – Pale Green Ghosts is an album of electronic pop, a genre Grant appears to have dived into head first, emerging with results that are as confusing as they are successful.
In the wake of the mass of critical acclaim that greeted the release of debut solo album ‘The Queen of Denmark’ in 2010, John Grant packed his bags and moved to Iceland to hook up with Biggi Veira of Gus Gus to produce a follow-up that moves on from the FM ballads of his debut to embrace new wave synths and beats (and Sinéad O’Connor). Having moved through the 70’s and 80’s in the course of two albums we can only assume his third will see him dusting off his parka and ‘aving it Britpop style. Or not.