It takes a brave man to signal a stylistic shift by throwing you in at the deep end on the first track. On the opening title track of Pale Green Ghosts John Grant does just that, ditching the soft-rock sentiment of his acclaimed debut Queen of Denmark for dark, pulsing synths and an atmosphere of latent menace. I’m not sure if Grant has done that because he’s brave, or because he just doesn’t give a shit. Based on the rest of the album I think it might be the latter; this is a man who just does not care what you think anymore.
That opener is a brooding, sinister, synth-driven ode to long, late night drives and it opens the album with a hell of a bang, which is fortunate since Grant’s intense personal issues take some getting to grips with. The sound of songs like Pale Green Ghosts and later track Sensitive New Age Guy is like the darkest, most cynical 80s pop you’ve ever heard – like Magentic Fields mixed with Vice City by way of absolutely zero fucks.
From the off he gives off a vibe reminiscent of the endlessly self-deprecating, always insincere and deeply morose Stephen Meritt. The opener even sounds a bit like a more foreboding version of Magnetic Fields traditional synth setup. The difference with Grant is that he alternates the self-deprecating with the self-obsessed, the insincere with the profoundly personal and the morose with barely veiled distaste. This is a guy who revealed he was HIV positive pretty much out of the blue at a random gig. He doesn’t deal in subtlety and by now he’s gone beyond caring what anyone else thinks.
It also demonstrates that Grant is a man with a hell of a lot on his chest, and he has no qualms about airing it. GMF demonstrates the polar extremes of a conflicted man – opening by discussing his stubbornness, his obstinacy and his people problems, moving on to proclaiming himself ‘The greatest motherfucker that you’re ever gonna meet’, stating that he’d like Richard Burton (a similarly troubled soul) to be dug up to portray him, lambasting the target of the song for having ‘the nerve to make me feel’ (though, he swears he doesn’t hate himself, he’s just angry) and finally(possibly sincerely) bemoaning that he shouldn’t be attracted to males. Of course he follows that up by reiterating that he’s, still, the greatest motherfucker. It’s a tough knot to unpick, especially when delivered with Grant’s impassive, usually insincere sounding tone. Maybe it’s because they’re so few and far between, but it’s great to hear a genuinely good singer operating in the lower octaves. On Pale Green Ghosts Grant uses its unique quality to great effect, almost singlehandledly setting the tone and atmosphere through a voice that is just dripping with repressed emotion.
Not that it’s particularly repressed a lot of the time. On Vietnam he makes the fairly bold claim that silence is like a nuclear bomb or Agent Orange, yet another example of the only half-contained anger that resonates throughout the album. If it sounds like anger, regret, self loathing and defiant self-aggrandisement are the name of the game then that’s about right.
With so much personal conflict raging it makes sense that the music is usually secondary to the story; even if most of the fuss on the album’s release was about the sudden shift. It’s a shift I think pays off for the most part. There’s the odd slow patch but for the most part Grant succeeds in creating a soundscape that weirdly fits with his neuroses and discontent, whilst also capturing the veneer of cold detachment he tries to layer over it. It’s obviously an act that Grant often struggles to maintain. I mean, just look at that central trio of songs – It Doesn’t Matter To Him, Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore, You Don’t Have To – on that triptych he ditches the routine almost entirely and voices his concerns with often brutal frankness. It’s fitting that he’s accompanied by Sinead O’Connor throughout the album, another artist similarly unafraid to hold back, and her wailed backing lends the kind of emotion that Grant’s baritone tones is unable to articulate. Album closer Glacier is perhaps the exception, a strange softening occurs and it’s strikingly more calm and measured. Grant even seems less bitter and more just kinda hurt; it’s sort of ironic that the glacial one is the warmer, sort of moving one.
What this all adds up to is a profoundly personal album whose greatest strength is its ability to intrigue and grow more interesting with each subsequent listen. Getting into Grant’s head as you go is a weird, thought-provoking and sonically interesting trip in spite of some slow sections and the need for some patience.
Listen to: Pale Green Ghosts, Vietnam, Sensitive New Age Guy