The song “Queen of Denmark” was made to known to me, and to many others I would presume, in its venomous but life-affirming cover version by Sinead O Connor which featured on her most recent album and was an obvious highlight. I wasn’t aware of the original and had never heard of the former lead singer of The Czars before; sorry. Since then I’ve been curious enough to listen to John Grant’s much-adored, very good indeed debut album (also called “The Queen of Denmark” )released 3 years ago and am curious as to what fans of that recording will make of this, the follow up, “Pale Green Ghosts”.
The “Queen of Denmark” album was predominantly acoustic, occasionally full-on jokey but mainly folky, tongue in cheek Carpenters-aspiring melancholia. The song writing here remains pretty unchanged, every song is about John Grant and his emotional, cognitive state; there is a lot of humour and a lot of anger. Musically however there has a been a very significant change, give or take a couple of tracks every song is awash with electronics, executed perfectly and extremely well produced courtesy of art pop Icelandic group GusGus’s Biggi Veira. The leading title track and “Black Belt” are typical examples of that with “Pale Green Ghosts” also incorporating Sergei Rachnaninoff’s “Prelude In C Minor” and sounding very much like Barry Adamson’s late nineties, cinematic stuff. “GMF” follows and is the first of the 2 acoustic tracks but it’s not until the beautiful and biting “Vietnam” (hold out for the striking string coda at the end), which signifies the start of an amazingly strong run of 6 songs, where Grant ups the song-writing ante and everything comes together magnificently as a whole.
“Sensitive New Age Guy”’ could be considered to be the most throwaway track here and is a delirious, techno sneer at the irritation that phrase conjures up. It sounds like it’s been produced by Felix Da Housecat in his prime and shares DNA with Donna Summer’s “Sunset People”; you wouldn’t have seen that coming after listening to Grant’s debut. “Ernest Borgnine” refers to Grant being informed of his recent HIV diagnosis and it isn’t depressing; it’s funny and catchy and one of the closet things here to an actual, albeit wonky, pop song. This and the elastic “You Don’t Have To” more than anyone else bring to mind Rufus Wainwright, another gay smarty pants; ironic, bitchy, scene-hating intellectuals who still feel outside of any supposed community and both of these tracks bear a strong resemblance to Wainwright’s best, most-realised work from the “Want One” and “Want Two” albums.
So John Grant must have also really enjoyed Sinead O’Connor’s take on the ‘Queen of Denmark’ because she features on 4 songs here (and is amusingly referred to as Mrs Grant in the credits) and what a joy and surprise it is to hear her in such a bleak, electronic setting and no more so than on the razor sharp “Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore” which is the darkest and probably the best song here. More of a duet than the backing vocals she provides on the other 3 songs, O’ Connor sings the whole song with Grant as a ghostly duet, echoing back each line with both suspended in the most chilling electronic soundscape, the pile up of duelling synth melodies at the end just continues the sense of a couple’s relationship disintegrating.
I think some of Grant’s original fans could struggle with the musical direction he has taken here and although understandable I think it adds a dimension that was in fact needed, the weightiness of some of the lyrical themes justify an equally substantial and edgy musical surround. He is an interesting, complex and sometimes challenging artist and this album finds him successfully experimenting and taking risks in areas where he could just have easily replicated the original sound of his much loved debut. Bravo big guy, one of the best releases of the year so far.