After a few listens my initial impression of John Grant’s Love Is Magic was one of inconsistency. The first and last thirds of the opening track “Metamorphosis” struck me as a sort of updated version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, and I think that might have tainted my ears. I wasn’t even sure I was going to write about the album because there were only a couple of songs that I liked. However, this is John Grant we’re talking about, and since I’m a disciple of the Advanced Genius Theory and believe that Grant is sort of circling around Advancement right now, I know better than to trust my own opinions.
So I put it on during my long evening commute the other day. And I was almost immediately blown away. I still think “Metamorphosis” sounds a lot like Joel’s quirky #1 hit from 1989, but then the title track came on and enveloped me like a Snuggie on a cold afternoon as I curl up on the couch with a cup of hot chocolate and watch the snow falling out the the window. “Love Is Magic” is an easy song for me to love because it’s the track on the album that would most easily and seamlessly fit into Grant’s seminal Pale Green Ghosts, a record that is on my All Time Top 5 list. And this, my friends, is a big part of my personal John Grant objectivity problem, because I view everything he does through the lens of that near-perfect 2013 album. Which is, of course, patently unfair to John Grant the artist, who continues to develop as a musician and a human being, bringing his new life experiences to his music. Unconsciously what I really want is recapture that feeling I got from hearing Pale Green Ghosts for the first time, the pure magic and exhilaration of something so unexpected and brilliant. Love Is Magic isn’t the problem; I’m the problem.
Come play Tempest with me,
Or maybe Millipede,
We can while away the hours…
“Tempest” opens with Gusgus-esque beats before taking us in a more dreamy direction as Grant seeks the solace of the video game arcade, somewhere he can play Tempest (or maybe Centipede or Millipede…) and escape from the things that bother him. And you’re invited to come along if you like… maybe we can hang out together and just play some games. Because that would offer a respite from life. I love everything about this track, right down to the video game samples at the end.
Lest one think that Grant lost his capacity for snark, Love Is Magic treats us to numbers like “Smug Cunt” (Now you’re just a smug cunt / Who doesn’t even do his own stunts / They just let you in / ‘Cos you won’t shut up) and the mild absurdity of “He’s Got His Mother’s Hips”. He walks the line between loquaciousness and vulgarity with the deftness of a Wallenda, placing each “fuck” with the precision of a Steph Curry 3-pointer and lacing the humor with arsenic.
The most intriguing track is “Diet Gum”. The cadence reminds me quite a bit of Ghostland Observatory’s “Codename: Rondo”, though instead of a telling a bizarre story instead it’s just a pure insult fest.
By the way, your bedside manner is reminiscent of a chuckle of hyenas,
Except… yes, it is a chuckle of hyenas, Dr. Turdface
It’s a collective noun,
Do you even know what a collective noun is, Stupidzilla?
— “Diet Gum”
By the end, though, the narrator finds himself sheepishly apologizing to the target of his jibes. Grant is willing to eviscerate others, but he also turns that scalpel on himself either overtly or subtly. No one is spared.
Once again John Grant has delivered an album that is parts poignant, funny, and honest, one that only reveals its complexity and depth to those willing to put in the time to truly listen. Love Is Magic is worthy of consideration on any year-end list; it’ll certainly be included in the conversation when I sit down in December to work on my personal Top 5 list for 2018.