After all the upturned thumbs that Queen of Denmark elicited in 2010, John Grant's second solo album had a lot to live up to. I realise that this won't be the most topical album review ever written, but even though Pale Green Ghosts came out over three months ago, it's still a record worth talking about. Also, I didn't have a music blog back in March, so...yeah.
Here are my thoughts on the 11 tracks that make up this rather singular CD:
Here are my thoughts on the 11 tracks that make up this rather singular CD:
- Pale Green Ghosts
Six minutes long and almost entirely synthesised, this trumps even E-Bow the Letter in the bizarre lead single stakes. It does make a fantastically striking introduction to Electronic John Grant (there was nothing like this on Queen of Denmark), but should it really be track one? For me, it sounds more like the album's dark, brooding centrepiece.
This one's good. It sounds a bit like Of Montreal. In some ways, I think that this should have been the lead single - it's more poppy than the album's title track, and it still works as a 'check out my cray-zay new direction' statement of intent. I love his quick-fire delivery in this song, especially the "you think you're mysterious/you cannot be serious" couplet. It's just so throwaway; I think lesser artists would have made much more of that line, but JG just pops it out and keeps going.
Somewhat less electronic than the first two tracks, this is the first song on the album that sounds like something from Queen of Denmark. Specifically, GMF is very, very similar to It's Easier, but while you might initially feel disappointed that John is repeating himself, it's interesting to note how different in tone the lyrics are. The older track (one of QoD's highlights, I might add) was sad, suspicious, and slightly low on self-esteem, while this new song...well, he kicks off the chorus by singing "I am the greatest motherfucker that you're ever gonna meet", so he's obviously gained a little confidence since 2010.
I saw John Grant at Cardiff's Swn Festival last year, and he previewed a few songs from Pale Green Ghosts, including this song. He mentioned that it came about after a friend asked why all of his lyrics were so miserable and self-loathing, so perhaps the 'greatest motherfucker' line is just him taking the piss out of himself. Perhaps he deliberately made this one sound a bit like It's Easier, the better to contrast the apparent arrogance of GMF with his usual self-deprecation!Or perhaps it just happens to sound a bit like another song. Interesting side note: GMF is also the name of a shop that sells car parts. I spotted a branch in Cardiff a couple of weeks ago and found it quite amusing, given what those three letters stand for in this song. Where was I?
This is another song he previewed at Swn. I wasn't especially keen on it then, but this sparse arrangement - drums, strings, and not much else - does a lot more for it. It's a lot more intense this way; there's so little melodic content in the first verse that it's kind of hard to tell whether or not he's singing in tune. Y'know, in a good way. The string section comes in a bit later on to add a bit of depth, and a good thing too because it would get a bit boring otherwise. It sounds as if I don't like this song, doesn't it? I do, though; it's based around a cool metaphor (silent treatment-as-weapon) and it probably would have made a better track one than Pale Green Ghosts.
- It Doesn't Matter To Him
Love the stormy guitar intro, love the sci-fi synth outro, love the bits in between. Especially the verses, which are pleasantly verbose and perfectly delivered. The lyrics kind of throw you at first - lines like "I get to sing for lovely people all over this lovely world" actually make him sound content - but don't worry, it is still a John Grant song, and there's a nice slice of sadness waiting for you in the chorus.
- Why Don't You Love Me Anymore
This is the one I don't like. It's too long, it's too samey, and it feels awfully bloated compared to the leaner electronic tracks like Blackbelt and Vietnam. Heck, even the title seems overlong compared to those two! It might have sounded better as a Midlake-backed, Queen of Denmark-style soft rock number (see tracks 3, 5 and 10), but to be honest, I don't think the album would have suffered all that much if this song had been cut altogether. It's horribly positioned, too; just as the album is threatening to get really, really good, this six-minute dirge comes along and everything grinds to a halt. This would have been the perfect moment to deploy Pale Green Ghosts, but alas, that ace has already been played.
- You Don't Have To
Fortunately, John Grant is not the sort of man who lets his albums go to shit in the second act. This one's fab, with another great synth solo and a crisp clarity that's extremely refreshing after the dense musical fog that made a migraine of the previous track. It's arguably even better live (see video below), but either way, the bitter lyrics and the simple, slow-burning melody are utterly stunning. And it sounds a little bit less like Rufus Wainwright's Vibrate when it's not being played on a grand piano.
- Sensitive New Age Guy
Hm. I really like this one, but what on earth is it doing here? It's completely at odds with everything else on the album, and while it's a nice break from all the post-relationship trauma we've been exposed to thus far, it feels like a foreign exchange student from a different CD. It's upbeat, it's wacky, and most bizarrely of all, there's a third person involved in the story he's telling - a 'she' to steal the limelight away from John Grant's narrator and his lost love! Maybe I'm overlooking something; maybe the smirking, semi-rapped lyrics are meant ironically, the black-humoured retelling of something that was truly tragic at the time. Maybe this song is somehow the most depressing of all.
- Ernest Borgnine
Oh, and how's this for mood whiplash? After a dippy, danceable workout that's (ostensibly) about a latex-clad wonder woman, we get a song about being HIV-positive. Here, JG skewers himself through a vocoder, sounding calmly perplexed and unsure of what to do next. Not that you'll spot that straight away; the album's last snatch of electronica has the potential to become a groovy late-night classic, complete with saxophone. If I ever buy a car, this will be the soundtrack to my soul-searching small hour drives, along with something from Boys Outside by Steve Mason.
- I Hate This Town
This one would sound positively jolly if it weren't for those darn lyrics. The verses aren't all that, but the chorus really takes it to another level, with some extremely shrewd use of the 'F' word and a singalong factor that will prove irresistible to anyone who isn't keen on their hometown. Oh, and the closing lines ("Now I'm packing my bags again/And you are not inside of them") are devastating in their simplicity.
A beautiful closer, with plenty of piano flourishes and even more top-notch work from the string section. "This pain/It is a glacier moving through you/And carcing out deep valleys/And creating spectacular landscapes"...if JG is addressing himself here, he's certainly being nicer than in Ernest Borgnine.
Now Pale Green Ghosts clearly isn't perfect. But the way in which it pinballs between electronic experimentation and more down-to-earth stuff allows it, miraculously, to both meet and defy the expectations heaped upon it. It's definitely worth a go if you haven't already given it one.