Pale Green Ghosts by John Grant
Ironically, I end up hearing a lot of music because I read about it. A 30 second review can be enough to make me invest in something before I do the smart thing and listen to it. Or an article typeset a certain way causes me to dive in. And so it was the case with John Grant’s new album, “Pale Green Ghosts”. I had gone past the article when a second scanning noted that Abba’s SOS caused him to become “unglued with joy.” So I did dive in and it was worth getting wet for. Many will think that this record is a prog rock epic made by the current NRL supremo, John Grant, detailing the star-crossed friendship of erstwhile Canberra Raiders, Josh Dugan and Blake Ferguson. And you’d be right. But it is also the second album from the former Czars singer and best friend of Midlake. Recorded in his recently-adopted home of Iceland (where a picture on the album cover suggests that he lives in a house way too small for him), this is a treasure trove of confessional songs that threaten to come across as all Bon Iver but are actually all West Coast 70s mixed with proto-punk dance and topped off with some early Human League. It is extraordinary. And the inside of the record cover gives up a big clue to the record’s ethos. There is a half-panel picture of one of those old telephone exchange boards from a Moog synthesizer favoured by the likes of Keith Emerson. A shot of a pensive Grant in silhouette. And a close up of what looks like peat moss. Put these together and you get “Pale Green Ghosts”.
It is apparent that Grant has found a muse to get him through the sometimes painful admissions contained in the lyrics. Acknowledged as Mrs John Grant in the liner notes, Sinead O'Connor duets unobtrusively on four tracks. Elsewhere, he double-tracks his vocals or adds a mournful Vocoder. Very “Random Access Memories”. And the comparisons don’t end there. This album share’s Daft Punk belief in the fact that they got songcraft down pat in the 70s in California and that a Fender Rhodes piano is a passport to musical pleasure.
The musical settings keep his vocals well to the fore. He wants his words to be felt hard, not buried. He might be anticipating the critics when he notes in “Greatest Mothefucker” that “I over-analyze and over-think things,…” but who cares? I love his way with a put down when taking on a former lover:
“What you got is a black belt in B.S. But you can’t hawk your pretty wares Up in here any more Hit your head on the playground at recess Etch-A-Sketch your way outta this one, reject”
And he is realistic when selling the upside of a relationship involving him:
“But I am the greatest motherfucker Than you’re ever going to meet From the top of my head Down to the tips of the toes on my feet So go ahead and love me while it’s still a crime And don’t forget You could be laughing 65% more of the time…”
which drops to 25% more of the time by song’s end. A precipitous fall known only too well by those operating in Canberra.
The spartan settings are electronic in spirit and design and the sprays of synth seem to long for a retro-furturistic age where love still has value and analogue rules. I swear that “You Don’t Have To” is the offspring of Jon & Vangelis’ “I Hear You Now”. And if “Sensitive New Age Guy” isn’t the LCD Soundsystem tribute of the decade, I don’t know my Yello from my Yellow Magic Orchestra. I mean, it uses most of the riff from Kraftwerk’s “The Robots” in the same way that James Murphy uses all of it in LCD’s “Get Innocuous!”.
And stick around for the florid closer, “Glacier”, where Grant sees emotional pain as a glacier that can be endured as it creates spectacular landscapes and nourishes the ground. In this song, he gives it the full orchestral treatment as a huge payoff after the spidery, low-fi arrangements of much that has gone before.
I could go on. I like the man’s music and I would imagine that I would enjoy his company. As he says in “It Doesn’t Matter To Him”, he is one of those guys who “…gets better looking as they age”. Hey, me too, John.
Seek this record out.