Friday, November 29, 2013

A Crack in Everything: Queen of Denmark

A Crack in Everything is a new thing that I'm doing where I take one of my favourite albums and list everything that's wrong with it. Why? Because no album is perfect, and I think that knowing the flaws is an important part of appreciating anything.

As much as I really liked Pale Green Ghosts, it still wasn't a patch on Queen of Denmark. There was a time when I put this album on every single night when I went to bed; in fact, I still do that every so often, and so I'd say there's a pretty good chance that it's my most-played album of all time. The critics love it too, especially the critic who decided to stick it at the top of Mojo's 'Best of 2010' list. Everyone seemingly agrees: Queen of Denmark is brilliant.

But it's not perfect. Somewhere amongst the swooping choruses and majestic melancholy, there are problems, and today I'm going to lay them bare.

If anyone has ever claimed to not like QoD, I'd wager that their main criticism was its pace. It's all very mid-tempo - perhaps even plodding - and I can see how this unhurried sound might get a bit hard to digest over the course of an hour-long album. The Queen of Denmark special edition bonus disc thing had a song called Supernatural Defibrilator on it, and while it might well be overly goofy (not to mention completely at odds with JG's other stuff), it would have made for a nice respite had it actually made the album:

The songs on the non-bonus disc (i.e. the album proper) are generally a bit AOR, and it's not hard to imagine someone who would be bored by that. John Grant isn't short of attitude - the shockingly brilliant Jesus Hates Faggots is sufficient evidence of that - but a couple of slightly more upbeat numbers certainly wouldn't have gone amiss.

Ah, but there is a more upbeat number! It's called Silver Platter Club...

...and strangely enough, it's one of my least favourite songs on the album. Sure, it's fun to begin with, and when that bouncy piano line first bounds into earshot, you're grateful for the change of pace. But that last chorus doesn't half drag. "I'm sorry that they didn't hand it to me on a silver platter like they did to you," sings Grant. "I'm sorry that I wasn't able to become the man you think I should aspire to." And then he sings it again, and again. I still enjoy hearing the horn section fall apart behind him at the end, but it could easily have happened sooner without really losing anything.

While we're on the subject of songs that don't ring my bell quite as loudly as their neighbours do, I feel I ought to mention Chicken Bones and Caramel. Even with its clever wordplay ("You better watch out, sugar, 'cause I'm about to get my Old Spice on"), the former always struck me as slightly too stompy and silly, and while the latter is an undeniably impressive vocal display, the reverent, hymnal lyrics never felt quite at home on the album at large.

And then there are the first two tracks (TC and Honeybear and Marz. I mean, they're both superb, but they're the only songs on the album that don't feel especially personal. Listening to a John Grant song usually involves getting uncomfortably intimate with his emotional life, and yet that doesn't really happen with that opening brace. Check out the lyrics:

"For TC and his Honeybear, the world will not stop moving. With rendez-vous and longing stares, and hearts that won't stop burning. Before that Honeybear had given up, he felt so sad and lonely..."
- TC and Honeybear

"Bittersweet strawberry, marshmallow, butterscotch, polar bear cashew, Dixieland phosphate chocolate"
- Marz

Instead of the usual first-person confessionals, we get a story about two lovers (who I realise are probably supposed to represent JG and his beau, but still) and a string of surrealist strangeness. Neither lyric is necessarily irrelevant to the songs that follow, but they certainly sound they were written from a different place and that does kind of detract from the oneness of the album.

This is getting really quite pompous now, so I'll leave you with proof that, in spite of all this, Queen of Denmark is still an utterly stunning record:

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