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John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts
Label: Bella Union – BELLACD377
Format: CD, CD+EP, Vinyl, Download
Release: 04 March 2013
Genre: Folk Rock, Synth Pop
Sophomore albums are traditionally tough for artists especially if they are a follow up to a critically and commercially successful debut. So here we are, former Denver, Alternative Rock band, The Czars, frontman John Grant trying to do just that with his second solo release, the follow up to “Queen of Denmark” “Pale Green Ghosts”. Now when I say tough I imagine an artist just gets on doing what he/she/they want but expectation from label, press and fans might get through to the artists and pressure them to “come up with the goods” a second time. That extra pressure might stifle any creative flow that artists need to be able move their art on and you end end up with a pastiche of their first album, which has happened often in past and stopped a burgeoning career dead in its tracks. With his first album John Grant had the back up of Folk Rock band, Midlake, to help him along on backing and production, this time though he has up sticks and headed off to Reykjavik, Iceland. Maybe he felt the pressure wouldn’t reach him on the volcanic tundra of Iceland and he could stretch his creative wings more easily.
If you are familiar with “Queen of Denmark” then “Pale Green Ghosts” might be a bit of a shock as mostly gone are the tinkling piano’s, picked and strummed guitars and Folk overtones and in comes synth washes, analogue drum beats, warm analogue bubbling and static crackles. Yes John Grants second solo effort is a modern Synth Pop album with a definite nod in the direction of Scandinavian synth Pop luminaries The Knife. Though this shouldn’t be a surprise as production is taken on by the other famous Icelandic electronic outfit, Gus Gus’ Birgir Þórarinsson (a.k.a. Biggi Veira). There were a few electronic “heavy” tracks on “Queen of Denmark” but this newer effort takes this and puts it upfront from the outset with opener and title track “Pale Green Ghosts” which is very much in the vein of The knife with its bouncy beats, stringed synth washes, brass stabs and reverb heavy vocals, its a darkish start to an album that on the whole is exploring the human condition through John Grants personal experiences. So carrying on pretty much from where he left off with “Queen of Denmark” then.
For those who are concerned with this new found electronic expression its not all bearing the soul to a disco beat as on the song “GMF” John steps back into debut album mode with a slower more heartfelt track with strummed guitar, emotive strings and backing from none other than Sinead O’Connor who also takes backing on three other songs as well, though its not a complete revert to type it does give the listener a feel that “Pale Green Ghosts” has some “Queen of Denmark” DNA. This slower feel continues on the next track “Vietnam” with its film soundtrack backing and Johns, David Sylvian like, droll singing wallowing throughout the song and thats the feeling I get from “Pale Green Ghosts” its as if the ghosts of early synth Pop pioneers like Japan, Visage, Ultravox et al.. have been brought back to life. And to cap it off is the Martin Gore and Depeche Mode inspired track “You Don’t Have Too” you really do hear where this album is coming from, this is of course to those of us that are steeped in synth Pop in the first place.
I do though have a couple of complaints with John Grant songwriting skills, one his lyrics are overly long and drawn out which for me become eventually annoying, a little bit of editing on the lyrical front could go a long way to make the songs have more impact and two his over use of swear words that really add nothing to the overall message in the songs. These are minor complaints as though the album does drag up the corpses of music long past it has enough modern sounds and creativity to set it apart from just another singer songwriter effort. The sound quality is great throughout its warm and inviting with enough bite and bounce to get the feet tapping and heart melting. The lyrical tone throughout is rather melancholy and downbeat but it never really drags you to a bad place long enough for it to be a miserable listen.
The album ends with a rather impressive piano lead piece “Glacier” who’s lyric aim themselves at youngsters struggling with the reactions to their sexuality, it is sparse and emotional and really sums up this eclectic album rather well. So if you are looking for a modern slice of introspective, Scandinavian inspired, synth Pop with a big nod to the early 80’s pioneers and a smattering of heartfelt ballads then “Pale Green Ghosts” will suit very nicely. Fans of “Queen of Denmark” might initially be spooked by the distinct change in direction from John Grant but once acclimatised to these cooler offerings you might just realise this is still the same John Grant they fell in love with in the first place.
Discuss this album here
I knew nothing of this artist before this arrived for review, just a vague feeling I had listened to something by him on Spotify once.