Review Summary: Every dog has it's day, and hopefully with Queen Of Denmark, John Grant's has arrived.
If ever there were an artist to be found lanquishing in the “criminally undiscovered” section of your local record store (now there’s an idea!), John Grant would be your man. Blessed with a smooth, effortless baritone, lyrical and melodic flair and barbed sense of humour, his work with Denver alternative rock collective The Czars was well respected and critically lauded by a knowing few, but never came close to grazing the mainstream. Twelve years and six albums later, The Czars finally called it a day, and John Grant embarked on the long road signposted Queen Of Denmark.
Unlike the “journey” experienced by contestants in, say, American Idol, involving nothing more taxing than a being humiliated by a panel of under qualified non-celebrities and the drive to the audition, John’s rocky journey has seen him encounter hatred, homophobia, self loathing, self doubt and more than a few dark nights of the soul, culminating in desperate thoughts of suicide. This self-destructive period in Grant’s life has, happily, been channelled into a work of great beauty and complexity, a classic of the genre, and guaranteed darling at the end of year poll partys.
Two things appear to have happened in Grant’s life to enable him to fully realise his artistic vision. One, John got pissed off. Lyrically the subject matter in a majority of the twelve tracks here deal with John getting angry . Angry at himself - for being weak and needy, for letting others make him feel the need to take the ultimate action, “I can’t believe that I’ve considered taking my own life/Cause I believed the lies about me were the truth” from the squelchy, synth stomp ‘JC Hates Faggots’ is great example. The song is simultaneously shocking, heartbreaking and quite frankly, hilarious. The great success to Queen Of Denmark lies in part to Grant’s lyrical lightness of touch. Much of the material is so soul searchingly personal it’s almost embarrassing to listen to. In less talented hands this could be a problem. In Grant’s it’s addictive. He knows he’s an idiot for doing the things he’s done, saying the things he’s said, and displaying the weaknesses he has (“You know I would do anything/To get attention from you dear/Even though I don’t have anything that I can bargain with”). Where Dreams Go To Die, the song that contains that line, is probably the best example of Grant’s inner conflict with the needy loser in love and his cynical, fiercly intelligent alter ego. You can almost hear them arguing!
Also, John is pissed off with, well everyone else really. ‘Silver Platter Club’ is a nerds call to arms, detailing his inability to achieve perceived greatness on the sports field, in the social circles he’s been forced into and even when trying to tan. It sounds like he’s annoyed with himself, but running parallel to this is a comment on the shallowness of the idiots around him (“I wish I had the brain of a Tyrannosaurus Rex/So that I wouldn’t have to deal with all this crap”).
Lyrically, Queen Of Denmark is less a collection of great tunes. It’s more than that. It’s a manifesto. It’s relief for all those poor souls who thought they were alone in their insecurities and doubts. It’s for all of us out there with a modicum of self awareness. It’s about achieving posititivity through all the crap we have to deal with.
The second thing that happened in Grant’s life was his introduction to Denton darlings Midlake. The Texan 5-piece were touring pals of John and fans of his previous band and, upon hearing his new material, not only persuaded Grant to commit them to tape, but also agreed to provide backing for the album. Recorded during down time before the release of The Courage Of Others, Midlake complement Grant’s silky voice wonderfully, bringing warmth and colour and rendering it, as they do with their own releases, with an otherworldly vibe. It’s unlike anything else. Like being stuck in space. In the 70’s. With a flute, violin and a collection of old synthesisers. As evidenced here, it’s kind of difficult to describe, which could be it’s greatest achievement.
Musically though, the real star of the show is Grant’s voice. It’s a revelation throughout. With opening track ‘TC And Honeybear’ the bar is immediately raised. It’s like you’ve been transported back to…somewhere. I’m not sure where, but I want go there and stay forever. Imagine your favourite 70’s AOR band (if indeed you have one) stranded and alone in a dense forest on Saturn. I realise there’s no evidence such a place exists, but this lovely music conjures up such imagery. That imagery is only reinforced by ‘I Wanna Go To Marz’, a paean to a more innocent time, with it’s ghostly tracked harmony throughout the chorus. These ghostly harmonies litter the album and frequently induce goose bumps. The spacey theme is scattered throughout the course of Queen Of Denmarks 50 minute running time. ‘Sigourney Weaver’ with it’s lyrical nod to Aliens and it’s ethereal opening, ’It’s Easier’ shimmers by on a wave of organ a la Radiohead’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ and closes with more ghostly vintage synth. ‘Outer Space’, once again invokes musical comparisons to OK Computer, with it’s strummed acoustic guitar accompanied with more soft, fluttering electronic organ. It really is quite gorgeous.
Ultimately, after the final, single piano note on Queen Of Denmark’s title track fades, one is left feeling rewarded. Full. Satisfied. Reassured that, in John Grant, there are still artists who value the emotional impact of music, both lyrically, where this is honest, heartbreaking and funny as hell, and musically, where the listener is taken on a ride of great variety, abundant melody and virtuosic musicianship.
I’m full but I want more.