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"Baby, you're where dreams go to die
I regret the day your lovely carcass
Caught my eye."
Queen Of Denmark marked the long-awaited return of John Grant, the former lead singer of the critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful Denver-based Alternative Rock band The Czars. When they disbanded after their last official album, 2006’s excellent Goodbye, the troubled John Grant plunged into an abyss of depression, drugs and alcohol abuse, beset by suicidal thoughts. In addition to his failed attempt at making a living as a professional musician (he worked as a waiter in New York for a while), the homosexual Grant also struggled emotionally with the consequences of his strict upbringing in a religious household and parents, who condemned homosexuality, as depicted in the chilling and disturbing Jesus Hates Faggots (‘Cos Jesus, he hates faggots, son / We told you that when you were young / Or pretty much anyone you want him to / Like niggers, spicks, redskins and kikes / Men who cannot tame their wives / Weaklings, cowards, and bald dikes”).
As a result of his parents’ attitude and the overall negative, judgmental view on homosexuality of the times (the 1970s), he felt alone, estranged and cut off from like-minded young people, afraid to show his true self. The various references to aliens and outer space are all the more appropriate. He felt like it was him against the world, one of the few real human beings on Planet Earth: the spacey synth intro of Sigourney Weaver sets the tone, the towering chorus addressing Grant’s feelings of loneliness and alienation, as he sings “And I feel just like Sigourney Weaver / When she had to kill those aliens”. At other times Grant would feel like an alien living among human beings, so when he met and fell in love with someone of his own sexual orientation, it was a revelation: In the chorus of the delicate and elegant Outer Space Grant voices his relief and gratitude (“I think that you must be from outer space / Baby, from somewhere beyond the stars / I think you must be extraterrestrial / Because you can open up the heavens for me / With just one smile”).
Floating on melancholic, feather-light classical piano, gently picked acoustic guitar and flute, Marz is wistful, reflective and strangely uplifting. The song title is the name of a sweet shop in Grant’s hometown and not a direct reference to the planet itself, though Marz does work as a metaphor – a place of refuge from the harsh realities of a strange, unsympathetic world (“I wanna go to Marz / Where green rivers flow…”). On another level the sweet shop also represents Grant’s childhood memories, a time of innocence, before life got too complicated (the nostalgic lyric charmingly lists the sugary treats on offer at the time: Green River, Bittersweet Strawberry, Marshmallow Butterscotch). The aforementioned references to aliens appear even more appropriate knowing that John Grant grew up in the 70’s, and that many artists of that particular decade had a fascination with outer space, whether it showed in the music, the lyrics or the album artwork (David Bowie, Hawkwind, ELO, Boston, Tangerine Dream, etc.). In keeping with the time period, the songwriting is heavily influenced by melodic 70s Soft-Rock (Bread, Supertramp, Elton John, The Carpenters, John Denver, Gilbert O’Sullivan) - even if the lyrics are quite a bit darker and more acerbic.
The tranquil, piano-led Caramel finds Grant at his most content and peaceful (albeit temporarily), experiencing the love of his life (“His laughter destroys my doubts / And he lifts me up so high / His voice – it is soothing like a warm breeze on a summer night / When he envelops me, I give myself to him / And my soul takes flight”). The feelings of joy and happiness are skillfully conveyed by way of an upward spiral of irresistibly spaced-out, futuristic keyboard sounds. But the love didn’t last, and Grant fell into a deep depression. Where Dreams Go To Die deals with the end of the relationship, Grant's morbid lyrics acknowledging that his former love is now dead to him ("Baby, you're where dreams go to die / I regret the day your lovely carcass caught my eye."). Closing track Queen Of Denmark is like a cathartic exorcism of Grant’s inner demons, his pent-up frustrations, all of the trials and tribulations accumulated over the years. Remarkably, though, he doesn’t display any self-pity, only righteous anger – and what’s more, he even manages to put a humorous, self-deprecating spin on his own misery ("I wanted to change the world/ But I could not even change my underwear/ And when the shit got really, really out of hand/ I had it all the way up to my hairline / Which keeps receding like my self-confidence/ As if I ever had any of that stuff anyway.").
John Grant’s vocals are emotional and riveting. His singing voice – a smooth, expressive and emphatic baritone – is a powerful instrument in its own right, wrenching each and every emotion out of the laudably stark subject matter on the soul-baring Queen Of Denmark. Aside from Grant himself, who plays piano, keyboards and synthesizer, the tasteful instrumental backing is provided by the extremely talented Texas-based Indie Rock quintet Midlake. Actually they were the ones, who convinced Grant to finally return to writing and recording music again. John Grant: "They tracked me down and said “Come live with us and record at our studio, and we'll be your backing band - all for free.” Grant’s self-effacing personality came close to killing him off. As he sings in Jesus Hates Faggots: “I can't believe that I've considered taking my own life / ‘Cos I believed the lies about me were the truth”. Fortunately for us, he accepted Midlake’s offer and conceived Queen Of Denmark, a minor masterpiece and a strangely life-affirming work of art.