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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Yes, you could skip brunch and save for a deposit on a house. But why?

You'd be missing out. 

There’s a tiny café round the corner from me, a place so small that you have to leave your Bugaboo pushchair outside (a serious consideration in this part of the world), which has somehow become famous across town for its brunch. At weekends, the queue spills on to the road, with people patiently waiting for up to an hour for pancakes, poached eggs and pondy-looking juices served in jam jars. The food is just as good later on, yet there’s rarely much of a line after 2pm, because brunch is cool in a way that lunch isn’t. Where lunch is quotidian, brunch feels decadent – a real weekend treat.

Though the phenomenon is hardly new – the term was coined by a Brit back in 1895 – brunch has always been more popular in the United States than here, possibly because it’s a meal that you generally go out for and eating out has long been more affordable, and thus common, across the pond. Despite our proud greasy-spoon heritage, the idea of brunch as an occasion with a distinct character, rather than just a wickedly late breakfast, is relatively recent, and it owes much to the increasing informality of 21st-century life.

The Little Book of Brunch by Caroline Craig and Sophie Missing revels in the freedom that the occasion bestows upon the cook, falling as it does outside the long-established conventions of the three-meal
structure. “It’s the meal where you can get away with anything,” they write.

By way of proof, along with eggs Benedict and buttermilk waffles, the book features such novelties as ’nduja-and-egg pizza, spaghetti frittatas and lentil falafels – dishes that you could quite respectably serve for lunch or dinner, yet also contain the cosseting, comforting qualities necessary in a first meal of the day.

Though such culinary experimentation is no doubt attractive to the increasingly adventurous British palate, I suspect that the arrival on these shores of the “bottomless brunch”, a hugely popular trend in the US, may also have something to do with our new enthusiasm for the meal – to the concern of health experts, given that Americans seem better able to grasp the idea of drinking as many Bloody Marys as they can handle, rather than as many as they want.

As David Shaftel put it in an op-ed for the New York Times entitled, wonderfully, “Brunch is for jerks”, this meal is “about throwing out not only the established schedule but also the social conventions of our parents’ generation . . . revelling in the naughtiness of waking up late, having cocktails at breakfast and eggs all day. It’s the mealtime equivalent of a Jeff Koons sculpture.”

The Australian social commentator Bernard Salt agrees, blaming this taste for “smashed avocado with crumbled feta on five-grain toasted bread at $22 a pop” for the younger generation’s failure to grow up, take responsibility and save enough money to buy a house. But as critics observed, house prices in Sydney, like those in the UK, are now so high that you’d have to forgo your weekly avo toast for 175 years in order to put together a deposit, and so, perhaps, it’s not unreasonable to want to live in the moment instead. “We are not going out for brunch instead of buying houses: we are brunching because we cannot afford to buy houses,” as the journalist Brigid Delaney wrote in response.

Baby boomers got the free education, the generous pensions and the houses and left us with shakshuka, sourdough and a flat white. Seems like a fair deal. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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