The continued evolution of John Grant is one of the most fascinating stories in modern music. Where some artists, when their music is confessional or therapeutic, tend to get the edges sanded off over time, Grant has only become more painfully brilliant as a writer as he has publicly confronted his demons.
Tormented by growing up gay in a fiercely religious family in Michigan and Oregon, plagued by anxiety and addictions in adult life, he didn’t really find his creative voice until his early 40s and his first solo album ‘Queen of Denmark’ in 2010. Since then he has been prolific and exploratory, ranging from rootsy Americana (the country-rock band Midlake were his backing band for that first album) to house music (guesting with Hercules & Love Affair in 2014) to grandiose torch songs with a symphony orchestra to spiky synth rock to befriending and collaborating with Elton John.
All the while, he’s tested new stylistic waters and continued to be provocative and emotionally raw in his lyrics, sometimes instantly appealing and at others puzzling or difficult. But this album is something else again – a quantum leap on a par with ‘Queen of Denmark’. Produced by Welsh multi-instrumentalist Cate Le Bon, as the title suggests it is centred on Grant’s own childhood. But what he and Le Bon do with that autobiographical material is nothing short of astonishing.
Put very simply, they use the sounds of the eighties – electropop and new wave – to soundtrack stories of that time. You can hear very specific references in some places: to Depeche Mode in “The Rusty Bull” and “Dandy Star”, to Yello, Sparks and Devo in “Rhetorical Figure”. Elsewhere there are subtler glimmers of Pet Shop Boys, Eurythmics, David Sylvian, Phil Collins, Hall & Oates and “quiet storm” soul, creating a general sonic palette a little like what Dev “Blood Orange” Hynes and Jessie Ware have explored in recent years. Le Bon’s studio skills are scintillating, never putting a foot wrong, sounding every bit as deluxe as any big eighties album.
The crucial thing here is that, even at its most explicitly referential, this never feels “retro” in the sense of tribute or pastiche. More, the synths, arrangements and production tricks are used like a great director uses sets and lighting, to conjure very specific times and places, making Grant’s vignettes and flashbacks feel very real indeed. The time of his childhood, after all, was the time of the “second British invasion”, when electropop and new romantic sounds from Europe and especially the UK bizarrely conquered even Middle America; it is a wonderful fit for tales of a young, troubled, queer misfit in a conservative milieu. And his voice, sitting in between country-rock and Broadway, sitting in these pristine settings, perfectly expresses those disjunctions.
These tales are often hard going. Grant is as unflinching as ever in endless description of cycles of abuse, paralysis, dissociation and regret – but at the same time his poetry is better honed and more beautiful than ever. Lines like “the stairs still creak at the Five & Dime / and it smells like something set apart from time” will grab you on first listen, and burrow in, taking on more and more resonance with each listen. This is classic Americana songwriting, but also literary, in a tradition of gimlet eyed North American writers from Raymond Carver to Douglas Coupland, Dennis Cooper to Alice Munro – and it adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
As the album concludes, the electropop becoming more experimental and abstracted on the arch “Your Portfolio” and the soft rock elements opening out into the big themes of love and loss, trust and fear in the closing big single “Billy”, it all points outwards to something much bigger than just sketches of Grant’s life. There’s a sense of the great American mythic going wrong: of the archetypes Brian Wilson grasped for (Wilson at his most cracked romantic is directly referenced on “County Fair”) colliding with the cold brutality of Reagan’s America with its TV evangelism and drugged economics. It’s stark, it’s bleak, but it’s also very, very beautiful, and consistently shows how love and trust can survive the darkest times, albeit with battle scars. In short, it’s a masterpiece: if ‘Queen of Denmark’ made Grant’s career, this deserves to be the album that has him recognised as a creative giant.
Cover Credit: Hörður Sveinsson
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs