Music had real therapeutic powers, both for the listener and the performer. For John Grant his second solo album since leaving the Denver band The Czars was an 11 song therapy session to reconcile the breakup with his partner and subsequent revelation that he contracted the HIV virus.
That’s a heavy load for anyone. To skillfully set all that heartache to music was just one of the reasons this album rose atop the sea of indie label music in 2013. Produced by Grant and recorded in Iceland with the help of Biggi Veria of GusGus, Pale Green Ghost was easily the best album on the Bella Union label (formed by former Cocteau Twins members). It was also in sharp contrast to Grant’s 2010 debut Queen of Denmark, an album describing the bliss of his then happy relationship.
I encountered this album just as March was turning in to April. The transition from our 5 month winter here in Ohio got me think about music for my spring jogs. On the surface Pale Green Ghosts offered the mid tempo to slow motion beats that seemed perfect for my longer runs. It wasn’t until confined to headphones that I could clearly hear that this was no ordinary synthpop album.
The bitterness over lost love comes out in nearly every song, starting with the angry keyboard rhythm of the title song. There’s lude speculation about how his HIV status was obtained in “Earnist Borgnine” with lines about being on ones knees. The obscenities don’t stop there, but are tempered with style and wit.
Many of the songs combine elements of Depeche Mode with Dead Can Dance with a bit of Kraftwerk thrown in. That’s the overall mix on “Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore”. Once again the song’s remorseful and bitter tone somehow is immune to sympathy from the listener because Grant is so skilled a wordsmith.
It’s not all gloom, although the little bit of humor in songs like “I Hate This Town” come from the irony of hearing the “F word” in the contest of a happy sounding pop song with sarcastic observations presumably about life in trendy gay neighborhoods. Other songs use retro styles for a similar effect. “GMF” for instance is structured like a folk ballad from the early ’70s, until it’s saucy language jars the listener back to Grant’s world of acid bitter and sad. The song gets further provocation with Sinead O’Connor’s backing vocals.
Grant’s baritone is often grave sounding, adding emotional weight to already heavy material. On the surface Pale Green Ghosts looks and sounds like post disco electro pop dance music, but throws a wet blanket on the notion of happy mindless dance music. If any club were to play this music it would be some kind of place that specialized in ironic Millennial angst, because Green Ghosts has plenty of that, but manages to be memorable in a good way.