Sunday, March 9, 2014
Standing in the queue to get a beer at the De La Warr Pavilion last night, I started to get beard envy. My permanent three-day stubble was no match for the thick, dark lustre of the hipster beards that seemed to be on display everywhere I looked. If I were to attempt such fulsome whiskers, they would be a very unedifying grey and ginger piebald affair. Luckily, American singer-songwriter John Grant seems to be the sort of person who would not be impressed by tributes to his own facial hirsuteness. If the lyrically acid put downs directed at those who have wronged the Denver musician are anything to go by, he is not one to suffer fools gladly.
In ‘Black Belt’, from his 2013 album Pale Green Ghosts, he addresses one of his past tormentors: “You are supercilious, pretty and ridiculous…Etch-a-Sketch your way out of this one, reject.” Coming halfway through a beautiful set at the De La Warr, it was a perfect example of the second-person accusations that fill Grant’s lyrics as he seeks to come to terms with a past of growing up gay, failed relationships, drink and drugs, and a present of being HIV-positive. But set to a thumping electronic beat, it was musically atypical: most of the songs are tender piano-led ballads, with sweeping classical crescendos and sudden bursts of retro synthesiser.
Grant’s relocation to make music in Reykjavik, after the demise of his band The Czars, is well documented. He seems to be at home there and has acquired new friends: the five Icelandic musicians that worked on his last album are all introduced by name with perfect pronunciation. But there are no backing vocals from Sinead O’Connor: she is at home, Grant tells us, waiting to pass a kidney stone. Ouch. I know this from experience.
Despite the deeply personal confessional balladry, and Grant’s rich baritone voice, it is not all sombre. The bitterness is often contrasted with moments of absurd humour. ‘GMF’ is driven by a melody that could have been written by the Carpenters but is hilariously juxtaposed by potty-mouthed lyrics. I sing along to the chorus -"I am the greatest motherfucker that you're ever gonna meet" – with others queuing for another beer, one of whom tells me the song is a favourite with the community choir she sings in. Referring to a time when he suffered from low self-esteem, he dedicates the song to those people who seem to have too much of it. And there are funny couplets: “I should've practiced my scales/I should not be attracted to males”.
In the heartbreakingly stunning ‘Glacier’, the penultimate song in the set at Bexhill, the pathetic metaphor descends hilariously to bathos: “This pain/ it is a glacier moving through you/ and carving out deep valleys/ and creating spectacular landscapes/ and nourishing the ground with precious minerals/ and other stuff”. Grant closes the set with the title track from his first solo album, ‘Queen of Denmark’, with the frustrated and self-deprecating line, “I had it all the way up to my hairline/ which keeps receding like my self-confidence”. And then he goes and encores with Abba’s ‘Angeleyes’; funny guy.