John Grant is probably better placed than most to write a great album. The former Czars frontman has had enough traumatic experiences over the last ten years to pen a string of novels, let alone the two full-length albums he’s produced as a solo artist. His deeply confessional song-writing style has revealed the deepest, darkest secrets of his struggles with depression, agoraphobia, drug addiction, homophobic abuse and most recently, the dreaded HIV-positive verdict he received from the doctor’s office.
Grant cuts and bleeds himself all over Pale Green Ghosts, an album which brings out the inner turmoil and anger the singer dealt with during the aftermath of a break-up, apparently the first time Grant had thought he’d found ‘the one’. The album sets off with Grant entangled in a web of post-traumatic bitterness and rage. He spits a torrent of criticism at his former lover on “Black Belt”: ‘What you got is a black belt in BS … You think you’re mysterious, you cannot be serious; You got really nice clothes, bet you didn’t pay for those.’ There’s no let up in the aggression either; on “Vietnam” Grant compares the poor guy to a nuclear bomb and elsewhere, to Agent Orange, the poisonous chemical used by the U.S. military during its campaign in Vietnam in the sixties.
Pale Green Ghosts is no self-pitying dirge though. Grant heals the wounds with creativity and encapsulates his feelings within the songs, shedding the bitterness and growing in the process. The mood shifts to one of finger-wagging and self-glorification on “GMF”; the invective becomes more ‘bitch, you don’t know what you had with me’ than a sense of betrayal: ‘I am the greatest mother fucker you are ever gonna meet, from the top of my head down to the tips of the toes on my feet.’ By the album’s end, Grant has emerged a stronger man and signs off with “Glacier”, a touching tribute to others like him, bruised by abuse and alienation. The track sees Grant stretch out a hand to a younger version of himself, preaching faith and conviction in his own beliefs and promising that pain is only temporary: ‘Don’t you become paralysed with fear when things seem particularly rough … This pain, it is a glacier moving through you, carving out deep valleys and creating spectacular landscapes.’
Grant’s ability to laugh at himself is another endearing trait. His sharp humour is bitingly funny at times and allows him to distance himself from the heavy subject matter. The jaunty skip of “I Hate This Town” sees Grant turn his scorn upon his neighbours: ‘I hate this fucking town, you cannot even leave your fucking house without running into someone who no longer cares about you.’
All that really prevents Pale Green Ghosts from being a five-star masterpiece is Grant’s failure to capture the essence of his deeply personal lyrics in the sounds he chooses. The album is a somewhat clunky collection of electronic beats and bubbling synth effects. A lot of the tunes surprisingly resemble bands like Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem (“Sensitive New Age Guy” could easily be a cut from Sound of Silver). The glitchy, robotic rhythm on “You Don’t Have To” also fails to match up to the beauty of Grant’s words; the strongest tracks are undoubtedly those more conventional piano ballads which underlie rather than outdo the vocals.
While the slick, electronic grooves don’t always sit neatly with Grant’s lyrical themes, this is nevertheless a thoroughly satisfying record, one which builds on the unique style formulated on 2010’s Queen of Denmark, but which digs further into Grant’s past to tell a deeply personal yet wholly relatable story.
…Jack is listening to Rhye – ‘Woman’