March 11, 2013 by Tess Riley
Until last Friday, I hadn’t really considered what it would be like to be trapped in a disco ball, far less while on hallucinogenic drugs. Then along came a request to review John Grant’s Pale Green Ghosts and there I was, mentally tripping away inside the walls of a shiny 1980s globe, uncomfortable at times but generally in it for the long haul.
[see review at the end of this post or on Virgin’s site here.]
From a crticial perspective I thought the album was impressive – Grant’s troubled past, dark humour and raw honesty are a heady combination that makes Pale Green Ghosts well worth paying attention to. Plus there were a couple of tracks I genuinely enjoyed in a ‘I’d listen to this in my bedroom’ kind of way.
However, the songs – intentionally or otherwise – are generally disturbing and obsessive, not a problem in themselves but, when delivered in monotonous tones against a disco beat, made me yearn for a Mumford & Sons banjo hoe-down or a bit of Bastille ‘e-ooh’-ing against a toe-tapping drum beat every now and again.
So, here’s my review – I’m sure fans of Grant’s style will be blown away by this second album and those who are new to Grant would do well to have a listen too, especially to the album as a whole as the style is pretty varied as it progresses – plus ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’ towards the end is thumbs up good stuff in my book so don’t skip that out.
Overall, nothing ventured, nothing gained… and you’re always welcome to come find me tripping in the disco ball if needs be.
If synth-pumping singer-songwriter electronica was a genre, ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ would be its perfect embodiment. It’s an album of contradictions, switching between emotional highs and lows with the flick of a sharpened butter knife, and it’s one that exposes musician John Grant’s state of mind in all its beautiful intricacies and ugly complexities.
As a second album, this is a perfect follow-up to Grant’s widely acclaimed 2010 ‘Queen of Denmark’, his debut as a solo artist that set Grant up as a singer who would use his troubled past and broken heart not to wallow in adversity but to revel in it – however unsteadily – scathingly and with striking honesty.
Jump forward three years and the ‘70s-infused music of Grant’s first album has matured into the more electronic disco beats of the 1980s. What’s more, the male ex-lover known as ‘TC’ in Queen of Denmark is back with a vengeance – the ‘you’ of several Pale Green Ghosts tracks who is loved and hated in seemingly equal measure.
Take ‘Blackbelt’, for example, where the accusatory ‘you’ runs throughout the song as Grant works through a long list of things ‘you are’ against an unremitting house beat in the background. It’s hard to believe that this is the same ‘you’ whom Grant sings to with touching confusion in ‘Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore’, a song made all the more tender by Sinéad O’Connor’s hauntingly beautiful backing vocals.
At times, Grant’s contradictions slip into fantasies that confirm his obsessive preoccupation with his ex-lover. ‘You Don’t Have To’, for example, begins with the lyrics “we walked the dogs and took long strolls in the park except we never had dogs and never went to the park.” The song gets rapidly darker as Grant admits he can’t actually remember making love because he “always passed out” after drinking a lot “to handle the pain”, a poignant lyric for someone who has struggled with alcoholism.
But this is Grant’s forte, a stark contrast to the world of manufactured teen pop promoting vibrant youth, carefree living and innocently sexy heterosexuality. Grant is a musician who sings his feelings with an authenticity that leaves listeners in no doubt that we’re hearing it as it is.
Whether we would be able to handle such searing honesty all the time is another question. However, while Grant brings us close to his despair, he prevents us from getting to this point by mixing in a couple of unexpected lyrical, instrumental and rhythmic surprises, not least in ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’, a song that makes you want to start dancing the second it starts. If some of the other tracks on this album make you feel trapped in Grant’s unashamedly distressing state of affairs, this song is the perfect antidote. Yes, you may still feel slightly trapped but this time in a disco ball, on acid, and you’re not ready to leave quite yet.