John Grant's extraordinary new albumQueen of Denmark
is unlike anything and exactly like everything you've heard before. Have you ever wondered how the lyrics to John Lennon's "Imagine" would read as rewritten by a wounded narcissist? Or how about Cat Stevens' "Father and Son" narrated by a homophobe and his traumatized offspring? And what if this kind of lyrical violence was supported musically by a perfect recreation of 70's, middle of the road, piano-driven soft rock?
These kinds of juxtapositions, while hard to pull off for most singer/songwriters are John Grant's stock in trade. Anyone can write songs about pain and heartbreak or with some command of the English language, author snarky, cute songs designed to showcase lyrical fluidity. (Are you listening Jason Mraz? Ben Folds?) But rare is the artist who can break your heart, slap you in the face, and then make you crack up laughing, all in the same sentence. In "Where Dreams Go to Die" Grant writes, "This is like a well oiled machine/could I please see that smile again/it's all that makes me feel that I am living in this world." If neediness were sexy, Grant would be R. Kelly. Then the chorus kicks in: "Baby you're where dreams go to die/I regret the day your lovely carcass caught my eye." Grant's own horror at his dependency is palpable. By reducing his lover to a corpse, he reveals a Cronenbergian horror of the flesh. It's one of many motifs he'll return to during the course of the record that betray his fear of and desperate need for human contact. Like his fascination with aliens. "I feel just like Sigourney Weaver/when she had to kill those aliens/and one guy tried to get them back to the earth..." he sings in "Sigourney Weaver." With other song titles like "Marz" and "Outer Space," it's clear that Grant, like many a conspiracy theorist, sees extra-terrestrials wherever he goes and they reflect his own feelings of not belonging.
Kudos to Grant's label mates Midlake for providing perfect accompaniment. With a lyricist so strong, there's a temptation to back off and show tasteful restraint. But this material would've sounded horrible with a bunch of hired studio professionals. Midlake provide stellar settings for Grant's pearls: Schmaltzy piano that wouldn't be out of place in a Lionel Ritchie tune, big, simple tom tom fills of the sort Nigel Olssen used to execute perfectly leading into big Elton John choruses. Midlake get where Grant is coming from and they know how to get him where he wants to go. You can feel with every note they play, they're rooting for him to get across, against all the odds of something so fine ever being truly appreciated.
In "TC and Honeybear," a strange and sad story song, Grant and Midlake combine the acoustic guitar riff from Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin' at me" with Yma Sumac style backing vocals and enough flute to make Ron Burgundy proud. "Chicken Bones" is a clavinet infused Meters meets Dave Mason funky shuffle, and Grant leans into his R's like REO's Kevin Cronin, singing "Some days just chicken bones/you better fuck off now you'd better leave me alone/'cause I'm about to explode just like a Wonder Bread bomb/and I don't care what I know because I can't be wrong." Grant also name checks Pop Rocks, Calgon and Old Spice, using era-appropriate brands, showing how the emptiness of commercial imagery is used as a replacement for real feeling.
"Jesus Hates Faggots," is a chilling demonstration of how hatred is passed down through generations and how those indoctrinated early have to struggle, sometimes forever, with the repercussions of their upbringing. "Jesus he hates homos son/we told you that when you were young/pretty much anything you want him to/like Cocoa Puffs, red cars and Jews/postal clerks who waste your time/weight loss shakes and the local news/and when we win the war on society I hope your blind eyes will be open then you'll see." It's hard to listen to, in the same way Sufjan Stevens' "John Wayne Gacy Jr." is, because all the details seem so accurate.
Grant saves the best for last in the open heart surgery of the title track, in which he alternately lets himself and his lover have it. It's like Jonathan Ames re-wrote Eric Carmen's "All By Myself." It's brave, hilarious, full of self-loathing and 'I'd take a flame-thrower to this place' Pacino style bravura. If Grant's going down, he's bringing company. "I wanted to change the world/but I could not even change my underwear/and when the shit got really, really out of hand/I had it all the way up to my hairline/which keeps receding like my self-confidence/as if I ever had any of that stuff anyway." And then "You put me in this cage and threw away the key/it was this 'us and them' shit that did me in/you tell me that my life is based upon a lie/I casually mention that I pissed in your coffee." And that's just the first verse.
There are four songs that just lie flat and keep Queen of Denmark
from being an out and out masterpiece. It's Grant's fault for raising expectations so high. But I'll treasure these eight songs and wait for Grant and the rest if the world to realize how great he is. As if that will ever happen.-Dan Siegler
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MP3:"Marz" - Queen Of Denmark
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