Well, now. If you thought John Grant's 2010 album Queen of Denmark was special, you'd better get ready for this.
There's no getting away from the fact that Grant's HIV diagnosis hangs heavy over his new album Pale Green Ghosts so it's best we address that straight away. Revealed to a stunned audience at London's Meltdown festival in June of last year following a call from someone he'd slept with, it stopped Grant in his tracks when he was on the verge of working on his new album. For someone who had already partially overcome a tough upbringing, near-success then poverty with his former band The Czars and a battle with alcohol and drug addiction, this might have been the final straw for someone less open and honest a man than Grant. Confessional song writing might have its drawbacks, but given Queen of Denmark dealt in some dark themes with a mix of humour and pathos it's hardly a surprise – although the making of the new record did take a backseat for a while – that Pale Green Ghosts again addresses major trauma head-on. Problems may not have been completely overcome – Grant admits that his drug and alcohol addictions were replaced by indulging in casual sex - but these songs are part of a very public healing process.
The difference this time around is that the loving nods to the 70s, soft rock and Bowie, and the backing band of Midlake, have been replaced with 80s electronic music, synths, and working with Iceland's unpredictable Gus Gus (Coloradan Grant moved to Iceland in 2011), touring with Efterklang and getting the sainted Sinead O'Connor to contribute backing vocals. The brilliant thing about Pale Green Ghosts is that you don't need to take a leap of faith to join Grant on this new journey. If you've heard 'Supernatural Defibrillator' and 'That's the Good News' from his debut album then you should know there's always been a love of synth pop/electro in his music, so from the moment the intense throb of 'Pale Green Ghosts' kicks off the record there should be no looking back. And that's what Grant sings of: a song about the olive trees that line the road from his home town of Parker, Colorado to Boulder, a route he'd take to meet his boyfriend of the time (TC from Queen of Denmark) and an attempt to make a break from his claustrophobic upbringing and pursue the life he knew was right for him, he sings "pale green ghosts at the end of May /soldiers of this black highway / helping me to know my place." It's cut through with brutal and unsettling stabs of brass, like a twisted Bond theme and is a stunning start to the album.
Another difference between this album and Grant's previous is an anger over his relationship with TC; on the euphoric banger 'Blackbelt' he addresses his ex-love as "supercilious, pretty and ridiculous... what you got is a black belt in BS" and when the funereal march of 'Vietnam' refers to TC's influence as like "an ancient gypsy curse" and his silence as "a weapon, it's like a nuclear bomb" it's obvious that Pale Green Ghosts is delving deeper into issues, like the next stage of a necessary healing process. It's not all grim stuff, though. The beautiful organ and acoustic strum of 'GMF' – one of the songs that would fit perfectly on Queen of Denmark – is filled with hilariously quotable lyrics such as "I am the greatest motherfucker you are ever gonna meet / from the top of my head down to the tips of the toes on my feet" and "I wonder who they'll get to play me / maybe they'll dig up Richard Burton's corpse," yet it's still tinged with sadness as it floats to its gentle conclusion, and 'It Doesn't Matter to him' is a gorgeous cosmic lilt and a wry look at fame, lit up by Grant's warm, enveloping voice and space-age synths.
Yet sadness continues to hang heavy; 'Why Don't You Love Me Anymore' is a near-industrial synth track with exceptional backing vocals from Sinead O'Connor providing a creepy atmosphere, and 'You Don't Have To' sounds like Magnetic Fields stripped of all humour. The best, though, is saved for Grant's final act.
The last song on the album, 'Glacier', is the finest moment in John Grant's canon thus far. Witnessing the song live in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh during Grant's tour with Efterklang, it was a simple piano and voice track, utterly beguiling and keeping the audience completely rapt throughout, one of the most moving live moments I'd ever experienced. So, for 'Glacier' to reach those same heights on the album is both a joy and relief, with the piano and voice augmented by sumptuous strings as Grant sings of how experiences of homophobia change a person, using the comparison of a glacier cutting through a landscape: "This pain, it is a glacier moving through you / and carving out deep valleys / and creating spectacular landscapes... so don't you become paralysed by fear when things seem particularly rough." It's a song that will hopefully inspire younger generations to stand up to homophobia and prejudice and as a closing to such a fine album music rarely comes better or more impassioned than this.
John Grant has been through a hell of a lot in his 44 years and Pale Green Ghosts stands as a testament to being open, honest and creative when it matters most. There are many artists out there who would do well to take a leaf out of his book.