John Grant
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The American synth-pop auteur returns with an album constructed around the meaning of love. It is as wonderful, and miserable, as you would expect

An emotional landmark in the latest instalment in the career of John Grant is found within the first song of his fourth album. ‘Metamorphosis’ is a thumping fusion of satire and sadness – two slices of drilling synths sandwich a filling of anchored melancholy. He ponders about the grief experienced after his mother died unexpectedly: “As I enjoy distraction She just slipped away”. For a record entitled ‘Love Is Magic’, it sure is a brooding introduction. At least it would be, if it were not for the aforementioned slices.

Lyrics like “Yeast infection, Synthesizers, Demi-semi-quavers, Who created ISIS?“, list like a bot of The Sun’s buzzwords on overload. John Grant’s voice rises then dips, an unpredictable vocal theremin. The rhythm repeats: two elongated slabs perform before a quickfire stab of eight punches infiltrate the track. His renowned wit is omnipresent; “A new shooting fresh for breakfast, This one’s in Florida, not in Texas“, Grant introduces the second verse. It is as if the bleak reflection of yester-minute never happened. What was once a sincere heartfelt confession now presents itself as a train that has stopped at a light, awaiting the go-ahead to continue the targeted journey.

Few operate in the same sphere as John Grant. With The Czars, he elevated elements of shoegaze and alternative rock to forge a sound more emphatic than the former and more profoundly elegant than the the latter. Grant’s early solo career further refined him as a singular voice; through tremendous laugh-till-it-hurts lyrics and subdued arrangements, he broke through the at-times tranquil visions of old to create an attention-grabbing sound that deserved multiple listens.

Grant’s fourth album ‘Love Is Magic’ continues to discard the traditional elements of his earlier work. Piano ballads are scarce, even choruses are less pronounced. Instead he offers a collection of songs that thrive in Grant’s unique complexity. The title track occupies in synths that would shine in the 1980s as he sings about the chaos of love: “When the door opens up for you, Don’t resist, just walk on through”. It is a battle between love and loneliness that John Grant laments about, painting pictures of life alone that seem anything but glamorous, “You’re trying to work out on your calculator If you can swing that trip to anywhere but here“. He believes love is magic, but that magic is not all Harry Potter and Britain’s Got Talent.

‘Love Is Magic’ is an enthralling listen, providing a plethora of short-term goods. ‘Preppy Boy’ is one of John Grant’s funkiest ventures. A twinkling synth lead dominates, like a suggestive ringtone too feverish to handle. As the drums build, a dance floor emerges. Strobes are envisioned as a coquettish bassline is thrusted into the forefront. Once Grant chimes in after nearly a minute, you are already caught up in the allure. Here he describes an Ivy League-esque man, and his suitability as a suitor. It is simultaneously ridiculous and utterly desirable, with brilliant quips like: “I see you out there playing lacrosse, I I know you wanna be the boss, and as far as I’m concerned you can.”

Elsewhere ‘Diet Gum’ is a natural development – and improvement – on the opening track. It is seven-and-a-half minutes of unashamed, charismatic pop that sneers at maturity. Steered by a constant beat and a slimy groove, Grant wanders off on a verbal tangent that refuses to slow down. As the song progresses, our view on his character shifts. From what starts off as an aggressive lampoon of an ex (“Like, I should feel grateful you are in my life, But I’d rather dig out my own spleen with a butter knife“) gradually morphs into an awkward confession (“You’re like that neon sign that keeps Kramer up all night, Yeah, I guess you did keep me up all night a few times. Really? 463?“).

John Grant is at once repulsive and relatable. The instant gut shriek of hating your ex at the point of break-up eventually softens to a state where you understand how that person affected you initially. The hook’s monotonous call of, “I manipulate, that is what I do, I manipulate, that’s what I’m doing to you” starts off clinical, but by the end is worn and regretted. ‘Diet Gum’ is a perfect example of how John Grant is an artist like no other. Even fellow indie wordsmiths like Sun Kil Moon or Father John Misty would stumble at the first hurdle. Grant’s vocal performance sells the song but the track behind is the kicker. It is masculine to a fault. Grant knows exactly what he is doing.

The rest of the album does meander towards banality however. ‘Smug Cunt’ – a take-down of Drumpf – is purposefully steady, but is instrumentally cold and drags. ‘Is He Strange’ recalls Grant’s early work but lacks the emotional weight. Pianos are present but never draw you in the same way ‘Grey Tickles Black Pressure’ does. The last two tracks are near-forgettable, with ‘The Common Snipe’ standing out as a rare soulless track in Grant’s all-too-human discography. Closer ‘Touch and Go’ is a pretty, if uninteresting, number centred around the life of Chelsea Manning (“Chelsea is a butterfly, she metamorphisized, You can’t catch her with your net, ‘Cause she is free inside“). Here, Grant explores a new form of love – one of observational respect and admiration.

‘Love Is Magic’ is a good album, but a bland John Grant one. The project is not as consistent, or coherent, as ‘Grey Tickles…’ nor are the songs of a similar quality to that of ‘Queen of Denmark’. But to write it off as anything but wild fun would be ridiculous. Grant is a preacher of the power of lyrics and its effect on the listener. No-one could execute a song of such delicious splendour like ‘He’s Got His Mother’s Hips’ and get away with it. By constructing a loose concept album around love, he has aimed for a concept larger than life. His own ambition may be his downfall. He won’t complain.