John Grant Pale Green Ghosts Review

Album. Released 2013.  

BBC Review

Grant swaps pastoral 70s sounds for synth-pop on a stunning second solo LP.

Jude Clarke 2013

When The Czars’ frontman John Grant went solo in 2010, the resulting album, Queen of Denmark, was extraordinary.

Laying bare his life, his struggles and heartbreak with openness and wit, the album featured Bella Union labelmates Midlake as Grant’s backing band, contributing their pastoral 1970s sound. It was a natural pairing.

The initial surprise on this follow-up is discovering that Grant’s songs work as well – if not even better – when paired with a synth-pop backing rooted more in the 1980s than the preceding decade.

The eerie, edgy title track opens the album with fierce little darts of synth paired with echoed vocals, conveying the sense of mystery and urgency of the singer’s adolescent journeys down his hometown’s “black highway”, seeking escape. 

Tracks like Blackbelt and Sensitive New Age Guy positively bounce, the latter recalling a swathe of 80s bands like The Human League and Depeche Mode.

Rather than a distancing device, these synthesised sounds actually become a conduit for the stories contained in his songs. And these stories are, again, excoriating in their depth of feeling.

That adjective applies most directly to Vietnam, in which the singer compares the silent treatment meted out by his ex (the same ex who haunts most of Grant’s most intense work) to both a “nuclear bomb” and the skin-stripping “Agent Orange”.

This clear-eyed honesty and anger – in the quite brilliant GMF he describes himself as “quite angry, which I barely can conceal” – is not softened by, but paired with, a humour that can be waspish, or just plain laugh-out-loud funny.

Blackbelt is an example of the former, Grant drawling, “Yeah, you got your bored look all worked out”. He’s also a master of a judicious swear, too, as evidenced by GMF – yes, the F stands for that F-word – and I Hate This Town.

Glacier is intensely tender and moving, the closer a ballad directed at youngsters struggling with their sexuality – or, rather, with others’ reactions to it. It is likely to provide succour and comfort from one who has, demonstrably, been through that emotional mill himself.

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