There’s little to compare with the ferocious ecstasy of love. On 2010’s Queen of Denmark, John Grant was a man in love. The ex-frontman of the Czars had battled his personal and chemical demons. It was an optimistic time, with some gorgeous (if perhaps slightly inconsistent) song-writing on offer. The album was recorded with folk-rock band Midlake in Texas – on the whole, it’s aurally gentle and warms one’s cockles.
By comparison, Pale Green Ghosts is the sound of an exorcism, performed in the middle of a vast ice desert to approximately no one. It’s sinister, aggressive, regretful and bruised – it’s also a meaty, throbbing departure from its flirtatious cousin, characterised by direct, high-attack synthesisers and deeply cynical lyrics. In case you’re wondering, yes – this is John Grant’s breakup record.
It begins with the razor-sharp title track with lyrics which allude to a particular kind of tree that lines the roads in Grant’s native Denver, Colorado. Quickly though, the metaphor extends to encompass the first of many snide dedications to come – “I hope you get everything you wanted, boy [….] but don’t come crying when you’re forced to learn the truth.” On Black Belt, Grant’s brand of violated disco takes a deeper dive with a spiteful lyric bent around an analogy for deceit, a “black belt in B-S”. There’s an almost amusing blend of conversational language and cultured lingo (“you are callipygian, but look at the state you’re in”), I say almost amusing since the relentless hate on this record stops anything from seeming removed enough from reality to be anything less than horrifying.
The album will sometimes try and trick you too – GMF is very reminiscent of the Midlake material; right before the chorus nosedives into the brutally mordacious refrain, “but I am the greatest motherfucker you that you’re ever gonna meet”. Similarly, there’s a Scissor Sisters-like buoyancy to I Hate This Town, typhooned out of the air by expletives once again. What’s great about the rude words on this album is that their use never seems excessive. Grant earns the right to swear on his angry choruses by complimenting them with intellectual verses that are groaning with emotionally candid vindictiveness.
That Scissor Sisters comparison is actually rather apt for another reason, there are piano chord progressions on this record that seem as though they’re straight off of 2006’s Ta-Dah”. It’s something about the chilly production and crass vocals, but anyway, It Doesn’t Matter To Him and Glacier both feature the dulcet tones of Sinéad O’Connor and are very much of that ilk, particularly the wild, reverberating broken-trumpet synth voice at the close of the former, a fantastic, affected texture that ends the first side of the vinyl edition (a fantastic pressing on mint green lacquer).
The album’s most electronic numbers are You Don’t Have To and Sensitive New Age Guy. On the first, Grant recalls fake memories over a minimal arpeggio, laden in its second half with weeping lead synths that recall the strangled cries of wounded birds. The latter track is a pounding, hi-NRG track in which the artist plays a sharp-witted game of cultural one-upmanship with his ex. Seemingly though, there’s something perverse about the perspective Grant sings from – he mispronounces Wagner pretty horribly and there’s a somewhat mocking reference to this character as “deep”. Both tracks, as with the rest of the record, feature keys and production from Icelandic musician, Birgir Þórarinsson (a.k.a. Biggi Veira) most famous at home for his work with electropoppers, Gus Gus. Testament to it’s cold, cold heart, Pale Green Ghosts was (largely) written and recorded in Reykjavik, where Grant now lives with a new partner – he is reportedly, and at long last, happy.
You might leave this review and wonder why I picked the LP for a column that’s supposed to be about synthesiser music. I mean, in some places, it’ll be obvious; the high-octane synth punches on Black Belt are unquestionably electronic. A track like Vietnam though has a similar sentiment for sure, but where are the synths? Well, it has got to be said, Pale Green Ghosts is not an album that’s all synthesisers, end to end. That however, is precisely the point. When those textures appear, they are nuanced, deeply-integrated and subtle. These are on every song – in Vietnam, it’s the oh-so-slight digital delay on the drums and the stuttering, ethereal waves that ripple out from the end of the first chorus. For the militantly avant-garde styling of the album as an artwork, Grant’s also managed to make something very new wave out of his sophomore – those are the same deliberately difficult chords you find in early ‘80s art rock; his lyrical depth, though fully realised and less pretentiously stabbed at, is a driving force.
To me at least, Pale Green Ghosts is one of the finest synth records of the last five years. Beyond it’s capacity for danceability or catchiness, it’s full of artful observations and painfully honest vocal performances. It’s a very cerebral record and that Grant has chosen to articulate his disdain through coldwave is commendable; he presents truth in a genre so often associated with theatrical insincerity.