Listen to Love Is Magic, John Grant’s fourth solo record released exactly three years after the last, and you experience his customary level of brutal honesty, irresistible vulnerability and wit – but with the electronics dialled way up.
The sound is razor sharp: deep, rib-shaking synths and tingling sequencers mix with impossibly punchy percussion and feather-like melodies. And, as you’d expect, the words don’t take a back seat in this ‘80s-inspired soundscape; it wouldn’t be a John Grant record without his signature storytelling.
Little can prepare you for the sonic assault of the first minute of opening track “Metamorphosis”. Arcade game meets rap meets ring master showmanship, it’s a surreal and disturbing list of phrases and questions – “earthquakes, forest fires, hot Brazilian boys” and “Who created Isis?” – all delivered in various straight and novelty versions of Grant’s speaking voice. Within seconds, this morphs into a sultry, reflective dream ballad about not having properly mourned the death of a loved one – and then back again. You’re disorientated and intrigued. You’ve been warned.
Title track “Love Is Magic” feels a little more familiar in style and delivery and, although it asks relentless questions – “And this thing called intimacy / Is it what you always thought it would be? / Do you feel like you’ve experienced what the word is supposed to mean? / Do you feel like you are in control? / Did you find out that there’s really no such thing?” – it’s ultimately a celebration.
It explores the inevitability of love and the importance of embracing it for the magic it can bring – ”whether you like it or not”. In a press release, Grant describes the logic behind the song and album title: “Love’s a shitshow that requires work, it’s not all lollipops and rainbows and ’67 Dodge Dart Hemis and STDs and macaroni and cheese and John Carpenter. But nothing can distract from the fact that, in spite of it all, love is still magic.”
His signature humour is evident even in the track listings: “Preppy Boy” precedes “Smug Cunt”. The former is a five-minute digital disco come-on, complete with seductive funk twang with winks and nudges a-plenty; the chorus begs, "Come on now, pretty boy/ If you’ve got an opening, I am unemployed". The latter is darker – even though it starts off scathingly describing the subject’s obsession with their own chest hair, it turns into a question of control and entitlement: “You don’t want things you cannot own”.
Towards the end of the album, slower and softer songs “Is He Strange” and “The Common Snipe” sit still and powerful next to the beats and bleeps of neighbouring songs. If Grant’s talking to his younger self in “Is He Strange”, it’s with palpable warmth, openness, and a degree of comfort with who he is now.
Somehow stories that are deeply personal and unique to Grant become relatable life lessons on this album. The specificity of the lyrics and the boldness of the electronic orchestration should theoretically preclude this – but Grant lets the emotions that drive them show through enough that you can’t help but connect. You’re listening to someone trying to publicly make sense of what he describes as “the absurdity and beauty of life” – that’s a brave undertaking, and it’s compelling.