An example of a great image being utterly against the band's wishes though there is something contradictory in the band's full blooded resentment about being perceived and marketed as Harry and a set of instantly replaceable backing musicians as they had chosen to call themselves Blondie. Here's the story.
John Grant Queen of Denmark (Bella Union)April 2010 was a particularly apocalyptic month. Volcanic ash choked the skies above Europe and the Gulf of Mexico was consumed beneath the unforgiving darkness of several million gallons of crude oil. So busy was I fortifying my underground compound, stocking up on tinned goods and queuing up Peggy Lee songs for the Doomsday Disco that I just clear missed the release of John Grant’s Queen of Denmark. Apparently, so did the rest of the loose editorial cabal that calls itself Drowned in Sound as it was not mentioned on these pages. This was an oversight. It shall be corrected forthwith.
First of all, Queen of Denmark is a rare and beautiful record. John Grant is blessed with one of those elemental baritones that deserves capitalisation. That Voice is capable of whipping up great tempests of yearning and sorrow while Midlake, who back him here, are fine musicians with a well-judged line in a sort of Nilsson-esque lushly orchestrated mid-Seventies Americana.
What made me fall for this album like a teenage crush, however, is not so much the Voice as Grant’s ability to infuse his narratives with a caustic wit that is genuinely funny and a sad honesty that is genuinely moving. He once told an interviewer that if he was a film character, he’d be Charlie Kaufman from Adaptation, and he shares with Kaufman an understanding of the fragile tragedy of being a human alive in this messiest of worlds. These songs are bathed in the melancholy angst of Synecdoche, New York, and as lovelorn as Eternal Sunshine.
The first track I heard from the album was ‘I Wanna Go To Marz’, a paean to childhood which is dreamy and other-worldly and certainly made me want to hear more, but it’s actually one of the more earnest tracks from an album marked by self-lacerating humour. ‘Sigourney Weaver’ is perhaps more indicative. Midlake do their best impression of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Free Bird’, while Grant runs through a series of increasingly brilliant metaphors for living as an outsider: “I feel just like Winona Ryder, In that movie about vampires, And she couldn't get that accent right, Neither could that other guy”.
Much has been made about Grant’s personal struggles – growing up gay in a strict religious family, and his later drug dependency – and they are certainly laid bare here. Witness “Can’t believe I considered taking my own life because I believed the lies about me were the truth” on ‘Jesus Hates Faggots’ for the former, or “I wanted to change the world, but I could not even change my underwear” on ‘Queen of Denmark’ for the latter. For me, though, these songs transcend Grant’s own personal demons to speak universally about love, about loss and about the loneliness one can feel even in crowds. On ‘Leopard and Lamb’, he draws a devastatingly simple sketch of a lost relationship which is at once clearly personal and, at least for me, spookily easy to relate to: “Watched The Simpsons, To remember how you laughed, I miss your dark blue eyes, and staring at your back”.
Throughout the album his use of language is virtuosic. It’s almost tempting to pigeon-hole him as a clever, droll songwriter in the mould of Stephin Merritt, but that would perhaps be to understate the aforementioned Voice. While I was still marveling at the way he casually drops the name of Mexican model Eduardo Verástegui into the lyrics of ‘Silver Platter Club’ he launched the sort of vocal fireworks on ‘Caramel’ that I haven’t heard since Jeff Buckley’s ‘Grace’. There’s a whole lot more to discover as this is one of those albums where my favourite tracks change with each listen - from charming, comic pop songs like ‘Chicken Bones’ to heart-wrenching ballads like ‘TC and Honeybear’ and the pounding finale of ‘Queen of Denmark’ – oh, and did I mention how truly brilliant he is at swearing?
It’s a privilege to be invited into a world this raw and devoid of artifice by someone as eloquent as Grant. His songs are honest and tragic without being self-pitying, and I hope this album brings him wild joy and plaudits even more gushing than my own, because he has earned them all. His heart is heavy enough to sink ships, but his voice soars like a butterfly. Come hell, high water, volcanic eruptions or rising tides of oil, do not less this music pass you by.