I kind of avoided any exposure to or knowledge about John Grant in advance of Iceland Airwaves this year. I’m not entirely sure why that was. I might have been rebelling against all the hype and excitement surrounding his performance, which was much anticipated in the wake of the release of his highly acclaimed new album Pale Green Ghosts and the fact that he spent considerable time in Iceland while working on it. He was a favorite not only of those musically “in the know,” but the locals as well, and his record came up every time I searched for Icelandic vinyl on eBay (which was annoying). Honestly I’d never heard of him before, and I didn’t know his prior band The Czars either, so I had a sort of unique opportunity to go into his show fresh and see if he lived up to all the hype. It turned out that he did.
Grant was given a primo spot at Airwaves, playing in the largest room at Harpa smack dab in the middle of Friday evening (meaning the crowd would be mostly sober) and being given a full hour for his set – something only a few other performers were allowed at this festival that generally runs tight 40 minute performances. We made sure to get there early to stake out a spot and watched the first two bands of the night. Once they were done the room really started to fill up. And fill up. And fill up. Where the hell were all these people going once they came in? I’m not sure, but the room was packed by time Grant came on stage with his band of Icelandic musicians, and he proceeded to completely tear it up.
Now remember, I knew nothing at all about Grant’s backstory prior to this performance. And about two songs in I found myself thinking, “this might be the most self-critical, brutally honest, and beautiful set of songs I’ve ever heard.” It was one of those experiences you crave as a music fan, the discovery of something new to you that is not anything like what you expected or even knew existed. Later I read up on Grant’s life and career a bit, including some recent interviews, and learned of his tough upbringing, troubles with drugs and alcohol, the pain of coming out as a gay man, and most recently of learning that he is HIV-positive (Grant openly admits that while he kicked drugs and alcohol, he did not deal with the unsafe (i.e. promiscuous and unprotected) sexual life that he was living). Having heard much of Pale Green Ghosts live and being captivated by it, I wanted to hear it again knowing what I’d learned about John Grant the man. And doing so truly puts Pale Green Ghosts into its true context.
Grant’s songs are more like conversations than normal songs, a feeling I got watching him live and that carried over into listening to his album. He doesn’t get super fancy or overly dramatic (OK, maybe a little sometimes…) – he sings like people talk to a great extent. And man does he keep it real, pulling the layers back on himself and the failed relationship that was the inspiration for so much of Pale Green Ghosts. It alternates between painful and sad and witty. He attacks his lover, but he attacks himself as well. No one is spared.
To say that I’m a man undone
Is understatement at its worst.
I was completely incapacitated
By your Southern charm,
It hit me like an ancient gypsy curse.
But this instrument you use with such precision,
It’s like a concrete wall, a thousand meters tall,
And I’ve tried to climb its icy walls a million times,
But I simply cannot find inside of me
The requisite resolve.
There’s a heavy electronic vibe to the music on Pale Green Ghosts, which makes sense given the involvement of Gusgus‘ Biggi Veira, and the music captures the sombre mood throughout, from the subdued energy of driving a bit too fast at night on “Pale Green Ghosts” to the crushing pain of “It Doesn’t Matter to Him.” Biggi’s influence is most obvious in “Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore,” a song that could be just as home on Gusgus’ masterpiece 24/7. The soundscapes are simply breathtaking.
I am not who you think I am.
I am quite angry which I barely can conceal.
You think I hate myself but it’s you I hate,
Because you have the nerve to make me feel.
— “GMF (Greatest Mother Fucker)”
I’ve listened to Pale Green Ghosts a half dozen times or so, and I have to say that even given the depth of the despair and self-deprication that Grant sometimes shares, almost in an effort to find bottom, this isn’t a depressing album to listen to. I’m sure frame of mind has something to do with it – if I was bummed out or had just suffered a break-up, my take on it might be considerably different. But the sincerity of the words and the beauty of both the music and Grant’s surprisingly silky singing voice ensure that the listening experience remains, at least on the surface, engaging. In fact I’ve had snipits of songs from this album stuck in my head for the last four days.
There are days when I think about you,
And on those days I really feel like a fool,
Because you don’t deserve
To have someone think about you.
— “You Don’t Have To”
I have to confess I like the saddest songs the most, those in which Grant completely exposes himself, warts and all, for everyone to see. He’s not afraid to admit his shortcomings, or his anger, or his part in things. There’s an honesty in “Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore?”, “It Doesn’t Matter to Him,” and “You Don’t Have To” that is hard to match, and you find yourself being sucked into Grant’s words instead of trying to hide from them, even with all their pain. I can only hope that he got some type of catharsis from Pale Green Ghosts, because it’s just so raw.
I’ve already started thinking about my “best of” year end lists, and I’m sure that Pale Green Ghosts will be among my favorite new releases of 2013. Frankly it’s probably the leader at the moment. There’s just so much there to love, and I’m sure that experiencing it all live for the first time contributed to my feelings for this record. Regardless of what type of music you generally like, you really should check this thing out. And if you go into it with an open mind, you might find something you really like… or even love.