Where the former Czars fellow’s much-lauded solo debut Queen of Denmark employed the stylish MOR rockers Midlake to add a smooth, melodically rich and guitar-heavy musical backdrop to his wry tales of love, loss and death, its follow up bears it almost no musical resemblance, coming across more like Grant fronting ’80s synth popsters Soft Cell than anything one could ever deem a “rock” troupe (it’s actually Icelandic electro wizards GusGus helping him out here). Time spent hanging out with Hercules and Love Affair seems to really have rubbed off – Pale Green Ghosts is an album of electronic pop, a genre Grant appears to have dived into head first, emerging with results that are as confusing as they are successful.
Despite the album being born of yet another time in the singer’s life that involved a fair bit of very difficult news (he was diagnosed as HIV positive, and has been characteristically open about it since), it finds him in the mood to have a bit of a party. The pulsating electronic squelches of the title track will totally throw anyone expecting more Queen of Denmark-like fare from the guy, but once the initial shock factor wears off, you start to appreciate so much of Pale Green Ghosts for what it’s intended to be – an album to dance to. Yet that dancing is, of course, often done with tears in its eyes; ‘Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore’, one of the most densely electronic tracks, is at once the album’s most despondent moment (“They say that I should go outside more and drink lots of water all the time – but that doesn’t seem to be working, ‘cos you still have not come back to me” says Grant, who one pictures walking round a club that he wanted to leave hours ago).
The one thing carried over from Grant’s debut is his very particular way around a lyric. He’s almost daringly matter of fact, which provides the album with some of its most endearing moments, such as the gently self deprecating sarcasm of ‘GMF’ (“I am the greatest motherf*cker that you’re ever going to meet/From the top of my head to the tips of the toes on my feet”) but also its most cringeworthy ones. ‘It Doesn’t Matter To Him’ tries to take a lighter look at a world that Grant still finds devoid of love, but lines such as the mammoth opening gambit (“If I think about it I am successful as it were, I get to sing for lovely people all over this lovely world, and I am nowhere near as awkward as I was when I was younger, I guess I’m one of those guys who gets better looking as they age”) will strike as many as confessional genius as they infuriate with their sheer blatancy.
That number is one of the few backed by slowly strummed acoustic guitars and gently cooed female vocal harmonies (here provided by unsurprising kindred spirit Sinead O’Connor). Elsewhere, Pale Green Ghosts really amps up the electro vibe, with numbers like the scathing ‘Black Belt’ or self parodying ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’ owing a noticeable debt to LCD Soundsystem, right down to aping James Murphy’s vocal delivery. The fact that not one of us would have imagined being able to say that about the follow up to Queen of Denmark is laudable in itself; Grant is not a man afraid of risks, of going out on a limb, or telling things exactly like they are.
It’s not one for EDM purists or those who like their lyrics with any degree of ambiguity, but if you’re the kind of person who finds the very idea of John Grant interesting, you can revel in the fact that he just got a whole lot more complicated.