Pale Green Ghosts openly displays just how awful much of John Grant’s life has been. As an artist he’s obviously had his fair share of heartbreak, but he’s also been on the receiving end of homophobia and is HIV-positive. Thankfully he’s managed to retain his incisive world-view, and channel all of these experiences to benefit his music. The album is dark and melancholy, as one would expect, yet Grant’s honesty and insight provide moments of optimism.
John Grant’s electronic tendencies have always been clear, both in The Czars’ work and on the Queen of Denmark. On Pale Green Ghosts this often becomes the dominant medium and highlights the stark mood changes. Without this experimentation into dance-orientated electronica, Pale Green Ghosts could have become too harrowing. His typical acoustic singer-songwriter arrangements are still present, and as always they complement his lyrics perfectly and are mostly compelling in their own right. But the album is most exciting when the upbeat is mixed with the downcast, the energetic, synth-driven arrangements paired with Grant’s unique voice creating something captivating.
Grant states that the themes of the album are “incapacitating rage, letting go and acceptance”. Rather than these emotions occurring in a progression, they appear to be confused, helped by the sonic and lyric variation. Grant is a complicated figure, and it is his diverse lyrics which elevate the album. Despite the morose subject matter, they’re often witty and perceptive, helping Pale Green Ghosts cut through the misery, as when he satires schoolboy mantras – “I should have practiced my scales, I should not be attracted to males”.
However upset he may appear, he normally manages to keep his sense of irony, yet when the humour is absent the lyrics retain their poignancy: “It Doesn’t Matter To Him” heartbreakingly balances recognition of his self-development and appreciation of his situation with the cruelty of his ex-lover’s rejection; it is also paired with “Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore” to heighten his isolation, with Sinéad O’Connor’s ghostly vocals underling his torment. He describes the world with the clarity and disconcerting precision of one who has suffered and experienced much, most noticeably on “Glacier”.
It is impressive that Pale Green Ghosts flourishes in its moments in unfamiliar territory, and the electronic nature stretches Grant’s emotions and honesty even further than his usual sound. The album’s inconsistency is often frustrating; the perseverance, however, is rewarding as even weak musical moments are lifted by Grant’s voice and words.