John Grant's last album Queen of Denmark represented an echo of a phenomenon rarely seen these days; a slow burning, word-of-mouth success that eventually piled up mentions in the 2010's release of the year polls despite the singer's obvious estrangement from the music industry's hype circus. What made its power and worthy recognition all the more heart-warming was that seldom had a record so filled with misplaced self-loathing wanted to be loved so much, it's the songs' visceral subject matter - inspired largely by growing up gay in hyper conservative Colorado - matched only by their gorgeously beige musical counter punches, a quilted subtlety courtesy of the singer's friends Midlake.
Finally then, everything it seemed was working out fine for the first time in Grant's hitherto emotional war zone of an adult life, until shortly after he was diagnosed with HIV, a fact that with typically mind blowing candour he announced on stage to a bewildered audience in 2011 at London's Meltdown festival. Now finding his life once more sent into a tailspin, it might have seemed in his darker moments that the vengeful god on Queen of Denmark's JC Hates Faggots was indeed having the last laugh after all.
If all of this has scared the crap out of you but you're still here, fear not. Recorded in his newly adopted home of Reykjavik with Gus Gus supremo Biggi Veira producing, Pale Green Ghosts is less knowingly confrontational that Grant's first album, as if the prejudiced demons he sought out on it have now been consigned to just memories. Musically it's a major departure as well, ditching the seventies FM saccharine tones and replacing them instead with retro synthesisers and the chillier ennui of late 20th century European clubbing.
As an exercise in skin shedding it's remarkable, but given the altered state of his life in the last three years, perhaps that's unsurprising. The startlingly unfamiliar first twenty seconds of the title track certainly command an audio double-take: did I download the wrong thing here? This sense of displacement is partially remedied when Grant's velvet baritone kicks in, but the song is full of crescendos and eddies, like a whirlpool with a lazy, snaking undertow which takes it to the fringes of art-pop surrealism and back again. If this was revealed later to be a Matthew Dear song, no-one would think to quibble.
Grant's dyspeptic edge may be blunted, but when called upon the man can make a fine ass post-modern disco song, like we ever doubted that he could, and Blackbelt is a tweaked remix away from the transient world of A Lists, charts and chat shows. Cleverly poignant, its way with knock out disses would give Jake Shears something to think about if it proved to be a permanent change of direction, but it's at this point, however, you realise it's a life from which Grant withdraw immediately as a conscientious objector. This stubborn refusal to sacrifice his self-doubting identity manifests itself from one perspective in songs like Vietnam - a ballad during which he compares the emotional numbness of a former lover to Agent Orange - to another, the potty mouthed, wonderfully overblown GMF. Whilst a willingness to drop the f-bomb in at intervals is hardly at Turrets levels, it's surely the lexicon of a man writing songs where pain and frustration are default emotions, joyous celebrations of misery such as I Hate This Town and the more lachrymose Why Don't You Love Me Anymore.
In those moments, he's as naked and vulnerable as we fell in love with him for the first time; but Pale Green Ghosts will probably come alive for you most if the techno renaissance Grant has commanded works on its own terms. If it does, you may consider Sensitive New Age Guy and its modish, dance punk LCD Soundsystem phrasings to be a work of angular joy, whilst the following Ernest Borgnine should send you into raptures with its injudicious use of a furiously bygone saxophone. If you preferred his more sardonic previous ego then it may be that this is too much of a departure: but like Queen of Denmark it seems that this is an album that will be content to be judged in six months, or even a year's time, by which time it will sound just as imperfectly familiar. Either way the man who spent a decade knowing he couldn't get arrested for anything other than being so drunk he couldn't even remember his own name is now making a habit of turning the act of seeking public redemption into a truly absorbing journey. We approve.
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