Pale Green Ghosts
It may not be a crime to love John Grant’s new album (as standout track "GMF" has it) but you will certainly find yourself "laughing 65% more of the time." Or, at the very least, smiling the tight, clenched smile of those who, like Grant himself, could rip out a line like, "I am quite angry, which I barely can conceal." Right. To his own ears, maybe; to anyone else listening in, it’s clear as day.
Grant’s "Marz," from his album "The Queen of Denmark," lent sweetness and poignancy to last year’s GLTB film fest hit "Weekend." That song’s contrast between lyrical plenitude (Grant reels off a candy store’s worth of sweets and treats) and the music’s wistfulness created a delicate dynamic that his strong, deadpan voice exploited.
Grant’s new CD, "Pale Green Ghosts" often achieves a similar effect. "Remember how we used to fuck all night long?" he sings on the track "You Don’t Have To." The song has a fluffy electro-pop texture that bristles with synth spangles; it takes a while for the words to sink in, and then they astonish:
"Remember walking hand in hand, side by side? / We walked the dogs / And took long strolls through the park. / Except we never had dogs, / And never went to the park."
This is a pretty good example of Grant’s sensibilities. He’s been called "scabrous" and "ironic," but he’s also drop-dead funny, in a bilious and self-mocking sort of way. Given that so many of these songs are about failed relationships (or maybe they document one spectacular crash and burn), it might be just as well. Self-pity, or pity for anyone else, is in scarce supply here.
"I Hate This Town" is a perfect synthesis of humiliation, rage, and humor: "You know I hate this fucking town / You cannot even LEAVE your fucking house / Without running into someone / Who no longer cares about you." If art is all about creating a singular expression that applies universally, then Grant has captured the very essence of heartbreak and disappointment - the "pale green ghosts" of the title, one would think.
One of the CD’s major standouts is "GMF," which on the sticker that adorns the CD’s wallet-style paper cover is said to stand for "Greatest Living Creature." (Needless to say, it doesn’t.) Grant starts off listing a few of his own social less-than-niceties ("I’m usually only waiting / For you to stop talking so that I can") before coming out with the song’s hook line: "I am the greatest motherfucker / That you’re ever gonna meet / From the top of my head / Down to the tips of the toes on my feet." He makes the line sound as though he believes it himself, but then again, he also keeps a vocal straight face when he goes on to muse, "I wonder who they’ll get to play me? / Maybe they could dig up Richard Burton’s corpse." It’s moments like this that you’re grateful Grant, at least, can play the material straight, because the listener is probably laughing out loud.
"Ernest Borgnine" boasts a smoky, jazzy horn, set against Grant’s reflections on his HIV status ("Now what did you expect / You spent your life on your knees"). "Glacier" is a blast of pure, sad loveliness. "Black Belt" buzzes and crackles: "Etch-A-Sketch your way out of this one, reject." And when Grant asks that perennial question of the lovelorn -- "Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore?" on the song of that title -- it’s only his gruff and profane sincerity, offset by his spot-on and yet oddball observations ("I keep expecting Woody Allen / To jump out from those dark shadows") that lifts the sentiment out of the treacly morass and makes it mean something once again.
These tunes are built on verve and drive, sparkling with glossy strings and luminous horns and sometimes-schmaltzy synth that sounds like it’s been living in frozen suspended animation since 1978. All together, these elements form a CD that plays tunefully but then goes off like a depth charge when you realize just what it is you’re singing along to.