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Opinion | Brutal honesty and dark humour served with the sound of synths

Singer-songwriter John Grant channels a gay perspective that everyone can relate to

John Grant performing at The O2 Arena in London, in March. Photo courtesy: Burak Cingi/Redferns
John Grant performing at The O2 Arena in London, in March. Photo courtesy: Burak Cingi/Redferns

John Grant is always brutally honest—in his songs as he is in his life. In 2012 when he was diagnosed as being HIV positive, he announced it on stage while performing at a gig in London. In 2015, on the title song of his third studio album, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, he sang: I can’t believe I missed/ New York in the seventies/ I could have got a head start in the world of disease/ I’m sure I would have contracted/ Every single solitary thing. The recurrent theme running through the songs on the four studio albums (including last month’s Love Is Magic) that Grant has released since 2010 is deeply personal and has to do with his many struggles: a nearly 10-year-long battle with cocaine and alcohol addiction but more with the early couple of decades of his life when he had to grow up gay in a religious, ultra conservative family in mid-west US.

The subject of Grant’s songs is nearly always tackled from the perspective of a gay man but he has the ability to make it relatable to anyone. First, because his highly literate lyrics, usually steeped in black humour and sarcasm, never appear to be self-pitying. But also because of his voice: a rich, magnetic baritone; and his music: synth-infused pop that invokes the soft rock of the late 1960s. Grant’s parents were Methodists and even swearing could result in beatings. Coming out as homosexual was unthinkable. He has said that he felt his family would have preferred him as a drug addict than gay.

Grant’s musical career began with the short-lived, critically acclaimed but commercially failed band, The Czars. In 2010, he debuted his solo career with Queen Of Denmark, a set of cynical songs with titles such as Jesus Hates Faggots (a response to his religious upbringing) and Sigourney Weaver, named after the actress who starred in the Alien series and recalling Grant’s move with his parents from a small town Michigan to Colorado; he was 12 and already knew he was gay; and hoped that the move would erase all of that and he could start over again.

That didn’t happen and he spent much of his youth deep inside the closet, lacking self-confidence, and seeking solace in alcohol and drugs. Those troubled years inform much of his work but so do his numerous relationships and unhappy break-ups. He came into his own with his second album, Pale Green Ghosts (2013). The set of 12 songs includes the upbeat GMF, a song dealing with the lack of self-esteem and vulnerability while in a relationship but one that has saucy lyrics, include a spirited chorus: But I am the greatest motherfucker that you’re ever gonna meet/ From the top of my head, down to the tips of the toes on my feet/ So go ahead and love me while it’s still a crime/ And don’t forget, you could be laughing 65% more of the time. Grant enlisted Shuhada’ Davitt (Sinéad O’Connor) to harmonize with him on that track, which became a centrepiece of the album.

It was with his third album, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure that Grant really got mainstream. His lyrics went beyond angry cynicism and turned wittier and more cerebral; and his music got finessed to an artier dimension.

Analogue synth lines were tightly crafted; and the rhythm and beats invoked electronica’s peak era of the early 2000s when dance-punk bands such as LCD Soundsystem bloomed. By then Grant had made Iceland his permanent home, and “grey tickles", the first part of the album’s title, is a transliteration of the Icelandic phrase for mid-life crisis. “Black pressure", incidentally, is a transliteration of the Turkish phrase for nightmare. Angry break-up songs still featured on the album and on You & Him, Grant sings a memorable line addressed to a particularly nasty ex: You and Hitler oughta get together/ You oughta learn to knit and wear matching sweaters.

Grant is a singular singer-songwriter whose lyrics can swing from the deeply sentimental to the wittily sarcastic in the same verse. He channels his gay perspective in way that a larger audience can appreciate. At a 2015 spring concert in New York, he performed seven songs for an audience (this writer included) that hardly knew him—they’d come to see the alt-rockers, Pixies, and Grant was opening for them. Yet, he held them in thrall, converting, I’m sure, many of them to fans.

On his latest album, Love Is Magic, the synths and the electronica have become more prominent. The punk-dance vibe is more pronounced. But the barbs, the wit, and the dark humour are intact. On Preppy Boy, set against a disco-esque background, he appears to chide and troll a man who’s denying his gay side; on Diet Gum, he unleashes an attack on someone who’s a notorious manipulator in a relationship; and Smug C**t is a broadside aimed presumably at Donald Trump (Now you’re just a smug c**t/ Who doesn’t even do his own stunts/ They just let you in ‘cos you won’t shut up/ Here’s to acting like a little boy/ Masturbating with expensive toys/ They just let you play ‘cos you won’t shut up.) Grant can effortlessly blend dark humour with anger and sarcastic wit, and serve it up with instantly agreeable music. That’s the formula for a compelling playlist.

The Lounge List

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘He’s Got His Mother’s Hips’ by John Grant from ‘Love Is Magic’

2. ‘Preppy Boy’ by John Grant from ‘Love Is Magic’

3. ‘GMF’ by John Grant (featuring Sinead O’Connor) from ‘Pale Green Ghosts’

4. ‘You & Him’ by John Grant from ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’

5. ‘Sigourney Weaver’ by John Grant from ‘Queen Of Denmark’

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

He tweets at @sanjoynarayan

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