The initial press coverage for the April release of John Grant's “Queen of Denmark” tended to focus on the role of Midlake as backing band supporting Grant during recording “The Courage of Others” or comparing the tone of Grant’s first solo record to Dennis Wilson’s “Pacific Ocean Blue”. I’ve listened to neither that Midlake record nor Dennis Wilson’s 1977 album. I’ve also not listened to John Grant’s previous underachieving band The Czars. All this was good because I came to the record without baggage. John Grant on the other hand....
What is inescapable from first listen is Grant’s issue with personal identity, a lack of comfort with his own body and self, and a wish to change, move on, escape. Some of the song titles alone tell you this. ‘I Wanna Go To Marz’ starts with unbearably sad piano then blossoms into a day-glo hymn of escape to a confectionary-laden paradise. It is so beautifully realised it is tempting to believe that ‘Marz’ is real but the constant tug of sadness running under the song, and the video too, suggests it is little more than an illusory dream.
Then there is ‘Sigourney Weaver’: a ballad full of elegance and pomp in which Grant claims kinship with a procession of Hollywood actresses who fought alien monsters, vampires and demons. And such battles are things Grant knows plenty about. Brought up in strict Presbyterian household, keeping his sexuality secret and then using alcohol as a crutch during his time with The Czars are all some of the demons he has had to fight. ‘Jesus Hates Faggots’ is a brutally raw portrait of living with bigots who demonise homosexuals – and almost any other minority group you can think of. You can taste the hatred and sense what it must have been like living through this in the reported words of the bigot and in the singer’s reaction (“I've felt uncomfortable since the day I was born / Since the day I glimpsed the black abyss in your eyes... I can't believe that I've considered taking my own life / Cos I believed the lies about me were the truth”).
Not all songs are as troubled or full of bile as this but in each one feelings are never swept under the carpet but rather paraded up and down on full display. The delivery throughout is reminiscent of the impassioned 70s singer-songwriter, lush but sombre with touches of orch-pop drama; it can be mannered but is unflinching in its honesty and never feels artificial.
If this all sounds unrelentingly gloomy it’s not. There is a rare beauty and even occasional flicker of hope in those songs of escape; and elsewhere the soft-shoe shuffle of ‘Silver Platter Club’ or the hilarious ‘Chicken Bones’ lighten the mood.
There’s even a love song in ‘Caramel’ in which Grant comes across like a low-rent Rufus Wainwright – and for me sounding less like himself is a bad thing. For all his personal issues with identity, he cuts a distinctive presence throughout the record, whether pained, vulnerable, bitter or angry. The final song ‘Queen of Denmark’ is breath-taking, a bitter tirade at a ex-lover shot through with admissions of his own weaknesses and guilt, a solo piano piece during the verses, it angrily erupts into a full-band stomp for the spat-out chorus.
From coming to this record with no baggage or expectations, it grabbed my attention in the first play and has never let go. And with repeated listens it only grows in stature. I feel for the pain that John Grant has been through and still carries but he has turned it into a memorably powerful record, and one of the best of the year.
I got "Queen of Denmark" shortly after it came out in April, wrote this in July but was prompted to finally post this following Grant's performance at Green Man Festival this August. And the intervening time and the video for 'Chicken Bones' has given me a new mental image for John Grant: a down-on-his-luck super-hero, sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, always trying to right wrongs - his own and those of others.