Reviewed: Pale Green Ghosts and The Low Highway

Addictive personalities.

Pale Green Ghosts (Bella Union);
The Low Highway (New West)

John Grant; Steve Earle

Male singer-songwriters aren’t usually encouraged to share their pain – at least, not in the teary, chest-beating sense. John Grant’s 2010 debut, Queen of Denmark, was a rarity, a luxuriant journey through 1970s-style melodic rock (Carpenters, early Elton) studded with sardonic lyrics about being a gay junkie in small-town America.

Grant looked like a trucker but he had the magical mindset of a child: in songs such as Sigourney Weaver (“I feel just like Sigourney Weaver/when she had to kill those aliens”) you could hear a little boy in Spiderman pyjamas upbraiding an adult version of himself. It was a masterpiece of wit and selfloathing. He’d all but given up on music: having slid out of view after fronting 1990s Denver rock band the Czars, he’d been working as a French/Russian interpreter in a hospital when the Texas group Midlake gave him their spare room and a studio.

After the surprise success of his solo album, Grant adopted northern Europe as his home and spent two years on what appeared to be a permanent tour, trackable through enthusiastic Facebook postings (“Malmö, I love you!”). He was wringing every last drop out of his debut with, one imagines, the same fears that occupy any musician in the small hours: what if I can’t do it again? What if they realise that was all I had to give? In the perverse book of rock-and-roll lore, walking into the sea or raiding the bathroom cabinet is a viable way of preserving yourself at your most creative, but rock suicides seem a bit hokey nowadays. So what would John Grant do next? The strange thing is that those of us who liked the album really cared.

At the heart of his music is a personality that engulfs you. Like all charismatic people, Grant is both addictive and exhausting. And though his songs appear to tell you everything – too much, in fact – you still wonder what life is like for him once he’s closed the door at night. That’s a powerful thing in a modern musician, when the private life is technically there for all to see.

The new album, Pale Green Ghosts, was recorded in Iceland and largely swaps acoustic rock for sparkly, electronic minimalism. There are shades of modern classical and ambient music – Satie, John Barry and something that sounds like Brian Eno’s Arena theme tune on “You Don’t Have To” (a song that includes the lines “Remember how we used to fuck all night long?/Neither do I because I always passed out”).

Grant’s melodies are spacious carriers for his distinctively clunky phrasing, which is the centre of both his introspection and his humour. On Ernest Borgnine (named, weirdly, after the Marty star) he considers the game of HIV roulette he played and lost. There is bathos in Glacier, where “pain moves through you, carving out deep valleys and creating spectacular landscapes/Nurturing the ground with precious minerals and other stuff.” Grant’s recurring theme, which might be paraphrased as “Why did you leave me? Nothing means anything now!”, refuses to bend, while his self-mockery pre-empts anyone who’d accuse him of flogging the same old horse. In his ability to make his misery entertaining he could be one of the great, debauched literary personalities of our age.

Some of the best male solo artists strike one dramatic pose repeatedly till it becomes a thing of comic genius (Morrissey), while a few, such as Bowie, experiment with transformation. Others play within literary genres, such as Nick Cave or Steve Earle, following the template of Dylan, popping up in film and TV as fictional versions of themselves. Earle’s life was a total and utter soap opera – heroin addiction, prison, years languishing in crack dens – yet he never became an overwhelming personality, even in songs such as “South Nashville Blues”, which came right up against those themes.

Earle started out as an industry songwriter (his work has been covered by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez) and he operates within country music’s griot tradition – it’s either political (anti-Reagan, anti-Bush) or it’s storytelling (“Copperhead Road” was about a Vietnam vet turned drug dealer). His first novel (2011’s I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive) was a historical fiction about the doctor who administered the fatal dose to Hank Williams. Even the coming autobiography is “a literary work in three acts”. Somewhere down the line, Earle has decided that reflections of his own life are more interesting than the real thing, and after the 12-step programme and 30 years on the road, he’s probably right.

His fifteenth studio album is a celebration of that touring life, “a vast galaxy filled with the brightest of all possible futures or the blackest hole in the universe”. There are two songs – “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way” and “After Mardi Gras” – which he co-wrote for the HBO series Treme, in which he played a musician (in The Wire he played a recovering drug addict). “Warren Hellman’s Banjo”, an expert copy of old-time folk songs, dedicated to the San Francisco philanthropist, is another example of Earle’s tendency to disappear into his music despite having had the life to fuel a hundred heart-to-hearts. The Low Highway chugs along on a kinetic country energy sounding just like its theme, the relentless pursuit of the road.

John Grant.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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The Good Lieutenant is a haunting novel by a former war reporter

Whitney Terrell's third novel is a powerful, and sometimes heartbreaking, war story.

Most war stories are about battle plans that don’t survive contact with the enemy. The third novel by the former journalist Whitney Terrell offers a new spin on this gloomy maxim, employing a reverse narrative that pulls back, chapter by chapter, from a military disaster to show the plans and intentions – optimistic, cynical, self-deluding, pragmatic – that led its participants there. As in Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal and Gaspar Noé’s film Irréversible, the backwards chronology has a weird and dizzying effect. The book starts with a bang, and then begins its slow free fall back to boot camp.

The good lieutenant of the title is Emma Fowler, nicknamed “Family Values” by her all-male infantry platoon in a half-grateful, half-exasperated recognition of her desire to play by the rules. Fowler isn’t above using her reputation to her advantage: “Eggleston thinks it’s too dangerous,” she shouts at an uncertain soldier as they embark on a difficult rescue mission, “and I want you to explain to Eggleston that if Family Values Fowler is in on this thing, then there’s no fucking way it could be dangerous.” But the nickname provides a fair description of her doggedly selfless character. “If you’re strong, you help the weak,” she explains bluntly when challenged by a fellow officer.

Moralising place names litter the military landscape of occupied Iraq, with its Camp Tolerances and Patrol Base Fortitudes, but ethics such as Fowler’s are in short ­supply. “Have some fun,” a superior tells her in disgust. “Dislike someone. Find an enemy. All this happy talk about helping the Iraqis stand up and saving them for democracy? Not happening.” Instead, an infantry captain fakes affidavits from Iraqis which allow him to arrest and torture whomever he likes. Fowler’s commander makes her pick out dresses for his wife and disinvites her from an all-male regimental party. Platoon commanders blackmail each other.

In the deepening pit of a dubious war, the military depends less on the chain of command than on the battle for a persuasive argument. “We don’t need any fucking intel, ma’am,” says one soldier. “What I’m saying is we deserve a story that makes sense.”

Making sense of the story is also a task for the reader of Terrell’s narrative, which constructs its mysteries of character and event in reverse order. As the book opens, Fowler and her platoon are combing a field behind a house in search of the body of their platoon sergeant, kidnapped on an earlier engagement. Assisting them is a signals officer, Dixon Pulowski, who presides over a network of surveillance cameras, and an infantry commander Captain Masterson, who we learn has pulled a lot of “illegal crap” to find the location of this property. The mission soon goes wrong: Fowler shoots the house owner, the field turns out to be mined and Pulowski and another soldier are killed.

The subsequent chapters flow backwards to reveal the personalities behind this fatal engagement and their relationships with one another. Pulowski is hiding the truth about the circumstances of the sergeant’s kidnapping. He and Fowler have been having an on-off affair since they met at boot camp in Kansas. Masterson is not the helpful professional he appears to be. Fowler’s nickname twists the knife in her sense of guilt about her own family. The book steadily infuses its characters with depth and humanity and lays out the dubious intelligence and errors that led them to catastrophe.

Moving backwards from Iraq also allows the book to cover a lot of ground. Many novels and films have examined the aftermath of battle and the difficulties of reintegration at home; many more have begun by evoking an American innocence that their war sequences intend to destroy. Terrell’s approach allows him to have much of both cakes and eat them. After 160 pages of The Good Lieutenant, the reader is back with Fowler and Pulowski at Fort Riley in Kansas, but the barbecues and pre-deployment disputes are now tinged with the knowledge of the horrors that await their participants.

The effect is powerful and sometimes heartbreaking. Fowler and Pulowski grow ever closer as time spools backwards, and other characters rise from the dead and cycle through phases of diminishing entanglement with one another.

In the book’s final third, we encounter Fowler’s brother, a small-town slicker who sells sub-prime mortgages to those he calls “our triumvirate of morons”: blacks, Latinos and soldiers. The irony is thick as he mocks his sister – “Hey, I’m going off to war to save my country. Aren’t I awesome? Don’t I deserve to be thanked? No! You volunteered to get screwed” – and is laughed off.

Terrell was an embedded reporter in Iraq, an experience that could make anyone cynical. His achievement here is to keep his faith in those moments when it was still at least possible to imagine a different outcome.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times