As if former The Czars frontman John Grant’s battles with drug addiction, depression and agoraphobia weren’t enough, the Denver singer-songwriter announced at a London show last year that he was HIV-positive. Also written during the aftermath of a particularly painful break-up, you would expect his second solo album, Pale Green Ghosts, therefore, to be the kind of misery-wallowing experience that makes Morrissey’s lyrics seem as shiny and happy as Carly Rae Jepsen’s.
And you would be right – the album’s eleven confessional tales of relationship woes, the majority of which clock in past the six minute mark, are perhaps understandably full of bitterness, self-angst and sadness, with the occasional bout of self-deprecation thrown in for good measure.
But rather perversely, John Grant has largely abandoned the melancholic 70s folk of 2010’s Queen of Denmark and has instead opted to encase these often uncomfortable expletive-laden diatribes in an early 80s synth-pop shell.
It’s an unexpected and mostly successful reinvention which constantly keeps you on your toes. The opening title track sounds like the Divine Comedy have gone calypso before it turns into an apparent early bid for the next Bond theme. “Blackbelt” echoes the deadpan disco-pop of Hot Chip with the guilty pleasure soft-rock of Hall & Oates. “Ernest Borgnine” even throws in a saxophone solo in amongst its juddering electro beats and vocodered vocals.
Coming from an artist so admirably bold and fearless, it’s surprising that Pale Green Ghosts occasionally seems afraid to stand by the courage of its convictions, particularly on “I Hate This Town,” which drops the whole electronica shtick completely to wander into slightly irritating bar-room rock territory, and the amiable but unremarkable retreat back to vintage Americana on “It Doesn’t Matter To Him.”
Of course, John Grant’s equally stinging and haunting way with words with will initially grab all the attention, whether it’s comparing the impact of a silent treatment to that of a nuclear bomb on the woozy trip-hop of “Vietnam” or offering hope to any gay youngsters growing up in a religious family on the stunning melancholic closer, “Glacier.”
But far from the mournful acoustic record anticipated, the disjointed nu-synth-pop of Pale Green Ghosts is vibrant enough to captivate even those who wish John Grant would occasionally lighten up.