John Grant, Pale Green Ghosts
Dark clouds are looming, but this underdog triumphs
In “GMF” (“greatest motherfucker”) John Grant sings, “Half the time I think I’m in some movie/ I play the underdog, of course.” It’s a fitting description of the Reykjavik-based (by way of Denver) singer/songwriter: He’s a gay man who’s had his heart shattered, fought cocaine and alcohol addiction, and a couple years ago learned he was HIV positive. Needless to say, there are dark clouds looming over Pale Green Ghosts, his second solo record. But in case you haven’t figured it out by the name of the aforementioned song: Grant refuses to dwell on what’s gone wrong.
In “Ernest Borgnine,” about his HIV diagnosis, Grant wonders what the late actor would do in his situation: “When I think about everything that he’s been through/ I wish he’d call me on the phone and take my ass to school.” And in regards to his ex, he’s throwing dagger after dagger: In “Black Belt” he sasses, “What you’ve got is a black belt in B.S./ But you can’t hawk your pretty wares up in here anymore” and in “Vietnam” he sweetly croons, “The only thing that brings me any comfort/ is the knowledge that no matter who you’re with/ You’ll always be alone.”
With the help of Icelandic producer Birgir Þórarinsson, Grant’s woes are balanced out with skittering electronic beats (“Pale Green Ghosts”), LCD Soundsystem-channeling disco (“Sensitive New Age Guy”) and measured acoustic guitars (“It Doesn’t Matter to Him”); besides the vocals, the backdrop is a drastic change from 2010′s Queen of Denmark, which had the brooding folk group Midlake as the backing band.
Pale Green Ghosts is an emotional rollercoaster, to be sure, but it’s one that ends on a high: In the gay-rights anthem “Glacier,” with soaring strings and angelic harmonies behind him, Grant closes the record with, “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 get particularly rough.”