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"This pain – it is a glacier moving through you
And carving out deep valleys
And creating spectacular landscapes."
As on his 2010 debut solo album Queen Of Denmark, American singer/songwriter John Grant takes the term “confessional singer/songwriter” to a whole new level on his second album Pale Green Ghosts. Compared to the 1970s’ introspective, confessional singer/songwriters such as Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell, John Grant’s stark, brutally honest and transparent lyrics are in a whole other category. On Queen Of Denmark, the courageous John Grant dealt with subject matters like homosexuality, homophobic abuse, parental rejection, depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, and the end of a long relationship with a guy who broke his heart (“Baby, you're where dreams go to die / I regret the day your lovely carcass caught my eye"), and on Pale Green Ghosts he’s every bit as brave, if not more so. In an interview, referring to his previous alcohol and drug addiction, John Grant said “This addictive personality permeates my entire being” and judging by several songs on Pale Green Ghosts, Grant’s ex-boyfriend is one addiction he is yet to shake off. But as relentless and unforgiving as Grant is in his portrayal of his ex-lover, to his credit he doesn’t shy away from displaying his own weaknesses and self-loathing, and as resentful and dark as his lyrics are, he has a unique ability to counteract the gloom with humorous observations and insightful self-irony.
That said, even if the demons haunting Grant haven’t changed all that much since Queen Of Denmark three years earlier, his music has actually moved forward to a certain extent. Initially intending to record Pale Green Ghosts solely with Texas-based Indie Folk-Rock quintet Midlake as his backing group, as he did with Queen Of Denmark, John Grant ended up relocating to Reykjavik, Iceland, where he recorded the album with producer Birgir Pórarinsson (a.k.a. Biggi Veira) of the Icelandic Electronic group Gus Gus. This change of scenery and producer inspired four overtly Electronic songs that are markedly different from any song Grant has ever recorded (both solo and with his old band The Czars). Not that Grant has completely abandoned the ‘70s Soft Rock-like ballads of his debut; they are still in the majority on Pale Green Ghosts, accompanied by Midlake’s rhythm section McKenzie Smith (drums) and Paul Alexander (bass).
The title track Pale Green Ghosts opens the album with an ominous-sounding programmed beat, Grant’s detached vocal and stark, minimalistic analog synth. The title Pale Green Ghosts refers to the trees Grant would pass at night, lit up by his car’s headlights, on his way to night clubs in Colorado (”Pale green ghosts at the end of May / Soldiers of this black highway / Helping me to know my place”). As the song slowly winds down, a Rachmaninoff sample is subtly woven into the soundscape. Like Pale Green ghosts, the equally electronic second track Black Belt could easily confuse or frustrate some fans of Grant’s first solo album and may initially seem out of place, but repeated listening makes all of these songs fall into place, until they form a unified whole. The memorable, melodic ballad GMF is the first song on the album, which assures the listener that the John Grant of Queen Of Denmark is still very much present. True to Grant’s complex, manic-depressive personality, the entertainingly narcissistic lyrics to GMF vividly depict his ever-changing moods; one moment he’s all low self-esteem and suffering from self-doubt (“You could probably say I'm difficult / I probably talk too much / I over-analyze and over-think things / Yes, it's a nasty crutch”), the next he’s all self-assured and arrogant, feeling on top of the world (“But I am the greatest motherfucker / That you're ever gonna meet…”).
Grant’s ex-lover looms large over Pale Green Ghosts, but as opposed to most of the songs on the record in which Grant lashes out in anger, the wistful It Doesn’t Matter To Him is where he lets his guard down and allows himself to be vulnerable, confessing to the world that his ex-boyfriend’s cold indifference still pains him to this day (“I still keep trying to figure out how I became irrelevant / How I got myself evicted from his heart from one day to the next”), even though he no longer holds hope for a reconciliation (”It doesn't matter to him…/ I am invisible to him”). The song ends with an atmospheric, approximately two minutes long synth outro. Grant’s addictive personality, his inability to get his ex-lover out of his system, permeates the lyrics to Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore (“The knowledge that I can't be what you need / Is cutting off my air supply / And yet this information hasn't reached my heart / And that's why I still try”). At one point, Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore breaks into an absolutely mesmerizing, edgy synth solo perfectly capturing Grant’s frustration, inner turmoil and resentment. The toxic relationship is also subjected to scrutiny on the track You Don't Have To, with the lacerating lines “Remember how we used to fuck all night long / Neither do I, because I always passed out / I needed lots of the booze / To handle the pain”. A charming, early ‘80s-inspired Electronica ballad, the polished You Don’t Have To features subtle, burbling analog synth sounds reminiscent of Depeche Mode, as well as yet another dazzling synth solo.
On Ernest Borgnine, Grant addresses the fact that he is HIV positive, but he doesn’t wallow in self-pity; in fact, he’s as hard on himself as ever ("Doc ain't lookin’ at me, says I got the disease / Now what did you expect, you spent your life on your knees."). By the end of the album, despite –- or by virtue of -– everything he’s been through, Grant does conclude that all of these hardships have shaped him into a better man, a human being of depth, integrity and nuances. Inspired by a car drive in Iceland, the album’s epic final track, Glacier, beautifully conveys these sentiments with pensive piano ascents, sweeping strings and vivid metaphors ("This pain – it is a glacier moving through you / And carving out deep valleys / And creating spectacular landscapes / And nourishing the ground / With precious minerals and other stuff / So don't you become paralyzed with fear / When things seem particularly rough"). A very worthy successor to Queen Of Denmark, Pale Green Ghosts is every bit as unapologetically graphic, discomforting, humorous, warm, wise and, ultimately, poignant and impossibly endearing. Now, this may very well be a predictable conclusion to the review, but that doesn't make it any less true: Pale Green Ghosts is as addictive as Grant's own personality.