Former Czars frontman John Grant ‘s second solo album is called Pale Green Ghosts, after the Russian olive trees that line the highway out of the Colorado town where he grew up; the ones the teenage Grant saw glowing in the moonlight every weekend as he drove to the nearest big city, Boulder, to go clubbing, and again years later visiting his mother as she lay dying of lung cancer. It’s an evocative title, especially when you know the story behind it, but the record was nearly given a different, more direct name: The Anger Stage, referring to the second phase of the grieving process as mapped out in the Sixties by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.
With an ugly irony, just as things were looking up for Grant following years spent battling addiction, poverty, depression, self-hate and homophobic ignorance, two events occurred in quick succession that would blow his world apart. First, his relationship with the man who he considered the love of his life – his first sober adult relationship and the subject of many of the lyrics on 2010’s critically acclaimed Queen Of Denmark – went spectacularly South; then, two years ago, the singer received a text message containing the news that a rebound fling had left him HIV positive.
And so, whilst those olive trees do make an appearance (on the sinister, throbbing title track, below), it’s ghosts of a very different kind that haunt Grant on his sophomore LP. Understandably, there’s a lot of bitterness in the 44 year-old’s brutally frank lyrics: on “Black Belt” he describes the guy that broke his heart as “supercilious, pretty and ridiculous”, kissing the relationship goodbye with the wonderful put-down “what you got is a black belt in B.S.”, and he can’t resist a few more digs – likening his ex’s bad moods and cold-shoulder treatments to chemical warfare on “Vietnam”, the tried and tested (albeit less poetic) “you’re not fit to shine my shoes” – during the course of the album.
In typically self-deprecating fashion, though, Grant gives himself just as hard a time, rapping his own knuckles for being “attracted to males” and imagining being portrayed in the movie of his life story by Richard Burton’s dug-up corpse, whilst at the same time hiding the tears of a clown with self-motivational pep-talk like “I guess I’m one of those guys who gets better-looking as they age” and “I am the greatest motherfucker you are ever gonna meet/ from the top of my head down to the tips of the toes on my feet”; he even tries to advertise his services as a boyfriend, advising prospective lovers that they “could be laughing 65 per cent more of the time” with him around, although that figure does come down to a more conservative 25 per cent by the time the song (“GMF”) ends.
This black humour helps prevent Ghosts from turning into a ballad-heavy pity party, but the new musical direction Grant has taken here also plays a big part in the album’s surprisingly upbeat feel; largely absent are the ’70s soft rock nods that populated his Midlake-backed debut, replaced here with cinematic synth soundscapes and ’80s influenced hi-NRG electro-pop courtesy of producer Biggi Veira of the Icelandic group GusGus, who Grant met when he moved to Reykjavik in 2011. It’s an approach that – for the most part – works well, elevating Ghosts above the maudlin acoustics of your average confessional singer-songwriter, bringing Grant back full circle to those weekends clubbing in Boulder, and once again to those Russian olive trees.
So is this Grant trying to relive less complicated (albeit just as unhappy) times or an attempt to bury the past and move on? If I had to hazard a guess I’d say both. Although never mentioned directly, the singer’s HIV diagnosis looms large over proceedings, and whilst he has always painted himself in a more protagonistic light, there’s a seldom-seen vulnerable side to Grant that often comes to the fore here; this time round – for a change – he’s the good guy, whose only mistake was to fall for the wrong man, and lord knows he’s not the only person in the world who’s ever done that. As it closes, with the epic, seven minute orchestral ballad “Glacier”, Pale Green Ghosts feels like hug and a warm drink for the confused and the frightened, a few words of reassurance for anyone finding themselves in similarly shitty situations; whatever cliches you care to throw at it – “confronting his demons”, “making the most of a bad thing”, “learning to live again” – this is a frank, funny and moving master-class in gaetting past “the anger stage” to a brighter tomorrow, courtesy of one of our most fearless songwriters.
Pale Green Ghosts is out now via Bella Union