The Greatest Mother F** Album
It’s not often that you get a softly whispered album that hits you squarely in the face but that is what happened to me with Pale Green Ghosts– the latest and in my humble opinion greatest of John Grant’s musical offerings. Now, to be fair, there are immediate clues in the album cover which is alarming and more than a little reminiscent of a Stephen King still. His eyes do rather stare out at you malevolently from a Cindy Shermanesque dusky green background.This greatness I mention is due to many things- first, the album is infused with the backing vocals of Sinead O’Connor- something you wouldn’t necessarily know at first until you know it and then all you can hear is her; secondly, Grant’s beautiful and rich, silky voice confronts lyrics that are….shall we say closer to the lexicon of a drunken sailor than to what should sound more sensitive and folky. The effect of this synthesis of the beautiful and beastly is one of a painful, eccentric and deeply affecting piece of work.
He now knows exactly what that voice is and how to use it. Grant doesn’t have to decide between smooth (albeit sinister) folk and dystopian synth. He can damn well use both and has.
Now you don’t have to know that Grant’s mother died of cancer, or that he in recent years learned of his HIV positive status to be struck immediately by the raw honesty of the album. The lyrics themselves do, as I say hit you in the face on first listening. Grant’s lyrics are naked and nowhere on the album is he afraid to confront himself at his worst from battling with his homosexuality, to depression, grief and ultimate self-loathing. Case in point:
“I am the greatest mother f***er that you’re ever gonna meet […] you think I hate myself, it’s you I hate because you have the nerve to make me feel”.
What saves it from tunnelling completely into the bleak recesses of a fargo-like hopelessness though is the fact that he knows how to use black humour. These songs are dark, moody, often vaguely psychotic but they are also hilarious. The example of “I wonder who they’ll get to play me/ maybe they could dig up Richard Burton’s corpse” is just one of many left-field tickers in the songbook.
It also hits new ground as Grant takes the synth-laden eccentricities of his first solo album Queen of Denmark and builds on it layer by subtle layer. He now knows exactly what that voice is and how to use it. Grant doesn’t have to decide between smooth (albeit sinister) folk and dystopian synth. He can damn well use both and has. The difference between GMF and Pale Green Gosts illustrates his range on this perfectly. The use of O’Connor too is both an excellent choice and a mature one, signalling a departure from the more one-dimensional eccentricities of his previous work by comparison. Grant does not need her voice to bellow out over lyrics which are, to put it mildly, heart on sleeve. Her luscious tones are married to the ethereal synth layers already laid down to create a seamless and perfect collaboration. Listening to this album is a confusing, sometimes upsetting trip but worth it on every level.