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The darkly intimate songs of John Grant

In his new album, the singer-songwriter known for his confessional songs reminisces about the Middle America he grew up in

John Grant performing at Shepherds Bush Empire, London, in March 2011.
John Grant performing at Shepherds Bush Empire, London, in March 2011. (Getty Images)

In a recent interview, Elton John, one of contemporary music’s biggest superstars, raved about John Grant’s new album, Boy From Michigan, calling it his favourite because it was Grant’s most personal album yet. John and Grant spoke to Britain’s The Observer in a joint interview in June-end, days after the latter’s new studio album, his fifth, was released.

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

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Grant, who burst upon the scene with his first album, Queen Of Denmark, in 2010, has had a buoyant career. That first album, a solo debut after his stint with the erstwhile American alternative band The Czars, received all-round critical acclaim and paved the way for his success.

A singer-songwriter, he has a big, warm baritone; and although many of his songs have a sad, even bitter, theme, his candid brand of dry humour can bring a smile to your face even when he is singing about heartbreak, betrayal, addiction, or being HIV positive, something he openly admitted to being very early in his career. His use of instruments, especially analogue synthesizer riffs and drum machine beats, is catchy, an excellent complement to his songs.

But it is his lyrics that make Grant’s music what it is, though the theme of reminiscing and nostalgia can at times make Boy From Michigan repetitive.

Born in a conservative small town in Michigan, Grant spent his adolescent years trying to come to terms with his homosexuality in an environment that was not quite liberal. These experiences inflect his lyrics, which are confessional, often bordering on self-loathing. Yet, although sad, his songs never seem depressing.

On Boy From Michigan, Grant, who has been living in Iceland for several years, is somewhat autobiographical. Some of the songs are about the Middle America he grew up in. The opener and title song begins with an extended and trippy synth line, followed by a programmed drum beat before Grant starts singing lyrics steeped in nostalgia: You know my mama sewed clothes for Bertha Wrunklewich/ That lady who I always thought was rich/And I considered her with awe and wonder when she came around. But soon, things turn dark, and in a later verse he sings: Beware when you go out there/ They’ll eat you alive if you don’t take care/ They have different rules they’re using/ The American Dream is not for weak soft-hearted fools.

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In The Observer interview, Elton John describes the new album as “a story of a little boy coming to terms with how he was treated as a child: of fear and anger, the hurt and the shame and the humbling he was put through”.

In Billy, Grant sings about how many men are tormented and end up devastated in trying to live up to stereotypes of masculinity: Billy, we’re so different but I think you must agree/ That we could not support the weight of expectation/ And it forced us to our knees/ And we set about destroying ourselves/ As members of the cult/ Members of the cult/ Members of the cult of masculinity. Grant never shuns directness.

Boy From Michigan has been produced by Cate Le Bon, the Welsh musician and producer. Le Bon has brought a tightness to the musical arrangements and although the album is long (its 12 songs together last for 75 minutes), Grant’s witty and balladic storytelling style makes for a laid-back listening experience, one meant to be savoured slowly.

To really enjoy Grant’s music, it is probably best to delve into his back catalogue. Songs such as Black Belt (from 2013’s Pale Green Ghosts), in which he sings scathingly of (presumably) a former lover: You are all enlightened; nothin’ makes you frightened/ You ain’t got no time to waste on entry-level medal class/ You are supercilious, pretty and ridiculous/ You got really good taste; you know how to cut and paste. Or, from the same album, the classic track titled GMF, which drips with the vengeance of a spurned lover and on which 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 has collaborated with the singer Ellen Kristjánsdóttir on a duet, Veldu Stjörnu, a song whose lyrics may be incomprehensible to those who don’t know the language but whose tenderness is palpable.

His collaboration with the British alternative rock band Elbow on a song titled Kindling (Fickle Flame) has an exquisitely sublime rendition of a gentle love song by 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 made it to best-seller charts and his live performances can fill arenas. His expansive vocals, intense lyrics and off-kilter humour have helped him garner thousands of fans around the world.

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