It isn’t every day that you come across an artist who introduces his most recent album on the subject of piles: “I did not think I was the one being addressed in haemorrhoid commercials on the TV set”. But then, people like American singer-songwriter John Grant, don’t come along very often.He was previously the frontman for the under-achieving Denver-based alt-rock band The Czars. The group split in 2005, and Grant took a five-year hiatus away from the vices of the music scene and a debauched hedonistic lifestyle.
Evidently, Grant couldn’t stray from music for too long, releasing Queen of Denmark, the first of three critically acclaimed albums in 2010. It’s a deeply personal album, which is hardly surprising, considering the trauma of homophobia he endured in his teens, and his battle with drug addiction and alcoholism which tainted most of his twenties. It wasn’t until much later in life that Grant was able to find his voice. His life, shadowed by self-loathing and disappointment, translates to his music: the dry humour of “Sigourney Weaver” (“I feel just like Sigourney Weaver/ When she had to kill those aliens”) perfectly summarises his sense of not fitting in, whilst “JC Hates Faggots” combines biting satire and anger (“And when we win the war on society/ I hope your blind eyes will be opened and you’ll see”).
Grant’s albums are a symbolic vehicle for reclaiming lost time, acting like aural memoirs, and this textbook catharsis covers a range of topics
If that wasn’t enough, Grant’s still coming to terms with contracting HIV (he publicly acknowledged his diagnosis to a stunned live crowd at the 2012 Meltdown Festival). In the title track of Grey Tickles Black Pressure he struggles to comprehend his disease: “I can’t believe I missed New York in the 70s – I could have got a head start in the world of disease”, but, he adds, “there are children who have cancer, and so all bets are off, ‘cause I can’t compete with that”. It is this insistence on contrasting moments of emotional gravitas and confrontation with dark humour that sets Grant apart; a common theme across his two remaining albums, Pale Green Ghosts (2013) and Grey Tickles Black Pressure (2015). Although the style develops, with a focus on synths and electronica, Grant continues to deal with his issues with a degree of frankness uncommon in the music scene. Most of his material is provided by his past relationships: he documents his volatile relationship with a man known only as ‘TC’ in Queen of Denmark, who Grant heralds as his “one and only”. After their breakup, ‘TC’ haunts Pale Green Ghosts (see “Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore” and “It Doesn’t Matter To Him”); in Grey Tickles Black Pressure, he’s still angry, particularly at those who suggest it’s time to start afresh: “They say let go, let go, you must let go – if I hear that fucking phrase once more this baby’s gonna blow”.
A man of many talents, Grant’s albums have won him a plethora of awards: Queen of Denmark won the Mojo award for Best Album of 2010; Pale Green Ghosts won the Rough Trade Records 2013 Album of the Year, and nominations at the Q Awards and Brits for Best Solo Artist, and Best International Male Solo Artist, respectively. Not only have Grant’s efforts granted him rave reviews from the likes of NME and Mojo, he also co-wrote the Icelandic entry for Eurovision in 2014, and, as a self-professed “collector of languages”, speaks fluent German, Russian, Spanish, Icelandic and conversational French and Swedish. Even the temptation to name-drop at events must be extremely frustrating: he’s collaborated with Tracey Thorn (Everything But The Girl), Budgie (drummer from Siouxsie and the Banshees, who accompanied him on tour this year) and Sinead O’Connor (she covered ‘Queen of Denmark’ on her album How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?, and also supplied backing vocals for Pale Green Ghost).
To pass Grant simply off as an angry bearded musician with a penchant for electronica and singing about breakups barely scratches the surface of his musical capacity. Grant’s albums are a symbolic vehicle for reclaiming lost time, acting like aural memoirs, and this textbook catharsis covers a range of topics. In the beautifully haunting ‘Glacier’, Grant doles out advice to young teens on the verge of coming out, whilst he sings an anthem of self-deprecating empowerment in the darkly hysterical ‘GMF’: “I am the greatest motherfucker/ That you’re ever gonna meet/ From the top of my head/ Down to the tips of the toes on my feet”. There’s no doubt about it: Grant’s music packs a powerful punch, but the idiosyncratic collection of songs are some of the most breathtaking I’ve ever heard. Musical therapy, but in the most profound and human way.