The dark and intimate songs of John Grant


In a recent interview, Elton John, one of contemporary music’s greatest superstars, praised John Grant’s new album, Michigan boy, calling it his favorite because it was Grant’s most personal album to date. John and Grant spoke to Britain The observer in a joint interview at the end of June, a few days after the release of the latter’s new studio album, his fifth.

John, 74, and Grant, 52, are from different generations and the music they make is very different as well. Yet they seem to be friends, with considerable admiration and respect for each other.

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Grant, who burst onto the scene with his debut album, Queen of Denmark, in 2010, had a great career. This debut album, a first solo after his stint with former American alternative group The Czars, was critically acclaimed and paved the way for his success.

Singer-songwriter, he has a great, warm baritone; and although many of his songs have a sad, even bitter theme, his straightforward, dry humor can make you smile even when he sings about grief, betrayal, addiction or being HIV positive, which he has openly admitted being very early in his career. His use of instruments, especially analog synthesizer riffs and drum machine rhythms, is catchy, a great addition to his songs.

But it’s his lyrics that make Grant’s music what it is, though the theme of memories and nostalgia can sometimes do. Michigan boy repetitive.

Born in a small, conservative Michigan town, Grant spent his teenage years trying to come to terms with his homosexuality in an environment that wasn’t quite liberal. These experiences influence his words, which are confessional, often bordering on self-loathing. Yet, although sad, his songs never seem depressing.

At Michigan boy, Grant, who has lived in Iceland for several years, is somewhat autobiographical. Some of the songs are about Central America where he grew up. The opening song and title begins with an extended and trippy synth line, followed by a programmed drum beat before Grant begins to sing nostalgic-infused lyrics: You know my mom sewed clothes for Bertha Wrunklewich / That lady I always thought was rich / And I looked at her with awe and wonder when she came. But soon things darken, and in a later verse he sings: Beware when you go out / They’ll eat you alive if you’re not careful / They have different rules they use / The American Dream is not for the weak-hearted fools.

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In The observer interview, Elton John describes the new album as “the story of a little boy who comes to terms with the way he was treated as a child: of fear and anger, of pain and shame and humiliation that he suffered ”.

In Bowl, Grant sings about how men are tormented and end up devastated by trying to respect stereotypes of masculinity: Billy, we’re so different but I think you have to agree / That we couldn’t take the weight of the wait / And it forced us to kneel down / And we set out to destroy each other / In as cult members / cult members / cult members of masculinity. Grant never shies away from the franchise.

Michigan boy was produced by Cate Le Bon, the Welsh musician and producer. Le Bon brought a certain rigor to the musical arrangements and although the album is long (its 12 songs are 75 minutes long), Grant’s witty and balladic storytelling style allows for a relaxed listening experience, meant to be savored slowly.

To truly appreciate Grant’s music, it’s probably best to delve into his back catalog. Songs such as Black belt (from 2013 Pale green ghosts), in which he sings scathingly (presumably) of a former lover: You are all enlightened; nothing scares you / You don’t have time to waste in the entry-level medal class / You are haughty, pretty and ridiculous / You have really good taste; you know how to cut and paste. Or, from the same album, the classic track titled FMV, which drips with the revenge of a spurned lover and on whom he is joined by Sinead O’Connor, the Irish singer whose life has been marked by struggles and controversies.

Then there are the delicate aspects of Grant’s songs. Fluent in several languages, including Icelandic, he collaborated with singer Ellen Kristjánsdóttir as a duet, Veldu Stjörnu, a song whose lyrics may be incomprehensible to those who do not know the language but whose tenderness is palpable.

His collaboration with British alternative rock band Elbow on a song called Ignition (Inconstant flame) has a delightfully sublime take on a sweet love song from Grant and Elbow frontman Guy Garvey. It can be watched on YouTube.

Grant may not be a household name in contemporary music, but many of his albums have reached bestseller charts and his live performances can fill arenas. His expansive voice, intense lyrics and quirky humor have helped him gather thousands of fans around the world.

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First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

@sanjoynarayan


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