“Each record I make is more of an amalgamation of who I am,” says John Grant. “The more I do this, the more I trust myself, and the closer I get to making what I imagine in my head.”
Even when the Michigan-born man released his debut solo album Queen Of Denmark in 2010, Grant laced sumptuous soft-rock ballads with an array of spacey, wistful synthesizer sounds, increasingly adding taut, fizzing sequencers, nu-synth-disco settings and icy soundscapes to the mix on 2013’s Pale Green Ghosts and 2015’s Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, the latter The Guardian described as, “variously agonising, hilarious, uplifting and moving: another bravura display from a unique songwriting talent.”
Now, with his fourth solo album Love Is Magic, Grant continues to evolve, creating his most electronic record yet, in collaboration with Benge (Ben Edwards), analogue synth expert/collector and a member of electronic trio Wrangler, Grant’s collaborators earlier this year under the collective name of Creep Show on the album Mr Dynamite.
Produced by Grant (together with Benge and Paul Alexander), and engineered by Benge at his Cornish studio, the diamond-hard, diamond-gleaming Love Is Magic, “is closer still to how I’ve always wanted my records to sound, but I didn’t know how to go about it,” Grant says. Already mentioned above, he also called on bassist Paul Alexander of Denton, Texas maestros Midlake, renewing a working relationship that began on Queen Of Denmark. “Paul trained in music theory at UNT in Denton, Texas with an emphasis in Jazz and I knew he would come up with beautiful harmonies, so I unleashed him on the backing vocals,” Grant enthuses. “He comes up with interesting angles rather than the obvious and also plays some of the best bass lines I’ve ever heard.”
Besides the quest for sound, “the lyrics, of course, continue to be very important to me,” says John. “They’re just snapshots of everyday life where myriad moods and every sort of horrible and hilarious occurrence one can imagine mix with the pedestrian resulting in the absurdity and beauty of life.”
Anyone familiar with Grant’s story will recognise his battles – with addiction and health, with trusting love and relationships. From this turbulence he’s forged another riveting collection of often brutal diatribes and confessionals, where humour, fear, anxiety and anger overlap as Grant, with trademark candour, figuratively exposes the machinations of his saturated brain. It’s epitomised by the album’s brilliant opener ‘Metamorphosis’, almost as if his warring psyches are facing up to one another, as impervious synth-pop and brain-on-fire imagery (“Tiki bar, rat soufflé, Buik regal, Marvin Gaye”) melts into dream-ballad introspection (“Questions left unanswered, spiritual extortion”) and back to synth-backed mania.
“Metamorphosis is about going down the road of insanity because of the inability to process feelings, and properly grieve for someone, and getting bogged down by mental illness and addiction,” Grant explains. “There’s the randomness at the beginning and the end, and the truth in the middle. It’s the mess of the human mind.”
The human mind is further discombobulated by the concept of love – we crave it, obsess over it, and are invariably traumatised by it, as the album’s title track explores. “Love’s a shitshow that requires work, it’s not all lollipops and rainbows and ’67 Dodge Dart Hemis and STDs and macaroni and cheese and John Carpenter. But nothing can distract from the fact that, in spite of it all, love is still magic.”
The magic of love also pervades two gorgeous, magisterial ballads toward the end of the album: ‘Is He Strange’ and ‘The Common Snipe’ – referring to the wader bird that makes a unique ‘bleating’ sound by rubbing its tail feathers together: “it’s about truly seeing another human being and not projecting onto them what you want them to be” says Grant.
In the same elegant, eloquent fashion, the album’s heartbreaking finale ‘Touch & Go’ is another kind of love story, centred around Chelsea Manning, the former US soldier turned WikiLeaks activist who transitioned to a woman while in prison. “I was very intrigued by her incredible story,” says Grant. “What kind of strength does it take to survive something like that while being decried as a traitor and a pervert for whom death is too good”.
Grant closely identifies with that scenario as he experienced prejudice himself, growing up in conservative, religious Michigan, and then Colorado, where he came to terms with being gay while being subjected to a deeply ingrained hatred of anyone perceived as homosexual at school and further alienated at home. Music, especially the new and gratifyingly gay/androgynous-leaning synth-pop sound imported from Britain, was a life-saver, while Grant also escaped, “the nasty world we grew up in,” through video games, as the gorgeous ‘Tempest’ recalls. But hormonal anxiety would rise up, which Grant recalls in the irresistibly danceable ‘Preppy Boy’, a paean to, “those cunts at school, who I hated, but a lot were very sexy. It’s a fantasy about getting what I wanted with one of them.”
The 80s-synth-pop-perfect ‘He’s Got His Mother’s Hips’ is a similar backhanded depiction, a #MeToo-related saga of “a cheeseball doing all he can to get into a woman’s pants, making a total ass of himself. It’s a fun song built on disgust.” ‘Smug Cunt’, however, is pure disgust, where a gorgeous beatific arrangement clashes with a vitriolic lyric about, “maladapted narcissists…the political system in America is built to produce the kind of buffoon we now have in charge.”
In Grant’s most hysterical (in both senses of the word) assassination yet, the narrator of Italo-disco strut ‘Diet Gum’ is simultaneously revolted by and attracted to a lover referred to as Dr. Turd-Face and Stupidzilla, and their time together, “a cross between Cannibal Apocalypse and Lassie 9”. “It’s the absurd extreme of a relationship,” he explains. “I’m exaggerating aspects of my own personality. It’s a lot of fun, but there’s a lot of truth in there too, about how people treat each other.”
There’s much else to tell about Grant: how the demise of his first band The Czars led him to abandon music for five years before an instantly acclaimed solo career, chart success (Grey Tickles… went Top Five in the UK) and a Best International Male Solo Artist nomination at the 2014 BRITS alongside Eminem and Justin Timberlake. Sinead O’Connor and Tracey Thorn have guested on Grant’s records, he’s sung live with Alison Goldfrapp and Kylie Minogue, performed at the 2017 Songs Of Scott Walker (1967-70) BBC Prom, and co-written/sung on Hercules & Love Affair and Robbie Williams albums. Last Autumn he recorded the “Kindling” duet with Elbow then went on to tour with them this Spring. His music has been used in films such as Andrew Haigh’s drama Weekend and Daisy Asquith’s Queerama. In 2016, he fronted BBC Radio 4’s Reimagining The City, taking listeners around Reykjavik, where Grant has lived since 2012; in April 2017 he curated North Atlantic Flux: Sounds from Smoky Bay in Hull, showcasing thrilling and innovative musicians from Scandinavia and Iceland. But that is the past, just as Grant’s autobiography, for publishers Little, Brown, is the future. The present is Love Is Magic, the latest installment in Grant’s astonishing story.