UNHAPPY PEOPLE, A Russian once suggested, are more varied and interesting than happy ones – which makes John Grant a very special person indeed. Over three solo albums now, his attempts to process a troubled life fully follow the principle of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – they are enthralling in their complexity.
The album’s title signals that the sweetness of Queen Of Denmark is history; ‘Grey Tickles’ derives from the Icelandic phrase for mid-life crisis, while ‘Black Pressure’ comes from Turkish for nightmare.
Many noted Grant’s fascinating character assassination of former lover TC in 2013’s Pale Green Ghosts. His grief still hasn’t transcended the anger phase; most notably, You & Him is a luscious squelchy synth collage, over which Grant delineates his subject’s self-regard, until the anthemic powerpop chorus: “You and Hitler ought to get together, you ought to learn to knit and wear matching sweaters.” While the withering put-downs on this and other songs, including No More Tangles, would surely scare away replacement lovers, this work is filled with more humour than bile. In particular, the stately title track puts his troubles into context: “There are children who have cancer,” he tells us, “I can’t compare with that.”
Grant’s wit is, as ever, endlessly diverting – like Carson McCullers or Tennessee Williams, he mocks himself as much as bystanders, and finds meaning in the pain. The sense of restless invention is palpable, although not every experiment pays off. Snug Slacks channels Prince but veers dangerously close to Dr Evil’s “the details of my life are quite inconsequential” monologue.
“This work is filled with more humour than bile.”
In comparison, Down Here is a more conventional collage of juicy analogue synth and melodic chorus – it’s sweet, but forgettable. But then we hit warp speed with the wondrous Black Blizzard as a throbbing synth backdrop opens up to an exhilarating, swooping chorus, like a mutated Bond theme.
Disappointing, with Tracey Thorn guesting, is every bit as imposing, a list of Julie Andrews-style Favourite Things which are all “disappointing, compared to you”. Such sweetness would cloy if it were unremitting, but in the midst of the traumas it’s truly thrilling.
No More Tangles is similarly sumptuous – Grant’s resolution to opt for a simple life, avoiding “narcissistic queers” – while epic closer Geraldine revels in a joyous clarity, like a rainbow after a storm. Hypnotic, economical strings frame the gloriously soaring chorus of a song dedicated to actress Geraldine Page, best known for her portrayals of embattled, magnificent heroines in the plays of Tennessee Williams. It crystallises the key message of this flawed but magnificent album. Life is a struggle – and who’d want it otherwise.
Watch the video for Disappointing: