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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Uncommon People sweeps you along as if you were trapped in a mosh pit

Author David Hepworth has acquired deep reservoirs of knowledge, and a towering stack of anecdotes.

First, a warning. It is perhaps best not to tackle David Hepworth’s work if you are the argumentative sort. He presents the central themes of his books in a manner that does not encourage discussion or debate: for maximum enjoyment, you should allow yourself to be swept along as if trapped in a surging, front-of-stage mosh pit.

Having argued persuasively in his last book that 1971 was the definitive year in the history of rock, Hepworth now takes as his theme the death of the rock star, killed off, like so many things that we thought would be part of the landscape for ever, by the arrival of the “mystique-destroying internet”. The end of physical product – Hepworth comes from a generation that spent hours gazing lovingly at album sleeves, seeking clues about the lifestyles and personalities of the performers – and the arrival of social media were the primary factors that led to the extinction of this breed of people whose names once formed the world’s cultural lingua franca. We still have global superstars in pop music but, he argues, the likes of Adele, Justin Bieber and Kanye West are not rock stars, whatever the last of these may think. Music has become “just another branch of the distraction business”.

Starting with the day Little Richard recorded “Tutti Frutti” in September 1955, Hepworth leads us through the next four decades, choosing one significant day – often only important in retrospect – each year in the life of an artist. Some obvious candidates (Bob Dylan, the Beatles) make more than one appearance, but there are some surprising inclusions, too. It is typically provoking of Hepworth to bring the curtain down on the rock era as early as 1995 and make his last subject not Damon Albarn or Noel Gallagher but an American software nerd. Marc Andreessen, the developer of an early web browser, helped to usher in an age in which “smart young people looked on and dreamed about being tech stars in the way the previous generation had dreamed about being rock stars”.

The last man to measure up to Hepworth’s rock star definition was Kurt Cobain, who killed himself in 1994. Cobain was a fan who unwittingly and unwillingly became an icon and could not cope with the consequences. His suicide note was “like a reader’s letter to a music paper”.

Though Hepworth writes with conviction, his manner is not high-handed or dictatorial. He is not a rock historian in the mould of, say, the Elvis Presley biographer Peter Guralnick or the Beatles chronicler Mark Lewisohn: you are not lost in admiration at the weight and depth of his research. In a lifetime’s devotion to the music and several decades as a journalist and TV presenter, he has acquired deep reservoirs of knowledge and a towering stack of anecdotes. He deploys this weaponry wisely and writes in an easy, fluid style. If he ever turned his hand to thrillers, you can bet they would be page turners.

The best chapters are those in which Hepworth’s choice is surprising, or he approaches it tangentially. His subject for 1978, for instance, is Ian Dury, whose album New Boots and Panties!! sold in its hundreds of thousands, making Dury – disabled after contracting polio as a child – one of the most unlikely success stories in pop. Dury was a complex character who could, like so many of the book’s subjects, be deeply unpleasant. “He had managers,” Hepworth writes, “but he did the manipulation himself.” Earlier in the decade, Hepworth revisits David Bowie’s fabled final Ziggy Stardust show at Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973, at which the singer announced, rather prematurely as it turned out, his retirement as a performer. It is a typical Hepworth flourish to reveal that the gig was not sold out and that the tour had been losing money. Occasionally, a chapter works less well because anyone with a reasonable rock library or access to BBC4 will know, for instance, that Bob Dylan was largely a self-created persona, that Brian Wilson had a breakdown under the pressure of sustaining his genius or that the launch of the Apple corporation in 1968 marked the beginning of the end for the Beatles.

But he is adept at identifying a watershed moment: the growth of teenage consumerism in 1950s America being an essential component of the birth of rock’n’roll; the making of the Beatles coming at the moment they recruited Ringo Starr; Live Aid launching the era of the now-ubiquitous outdoor mega-events; rock wrestling with its midlife crisis in the late 1980s.

On the odd occasion, the idea begins to flag in a way that did not happen in Hepworth’s 1971: Never a Dull Moment – 40 years being a trickier time span than 12 months. But you stick with the book because Hepworth is an inspired phrase maker. He is witty on the seamier side of touring (“They say the only touring musician who doesn’t want sex is the touring musician who’s just had some”), wise on Elvis Presley at the time of his death (“Nobody took being the King more seriously than the King”) and wince-inducingly sharp on Madonna in her early-1990s pomp: “Publicity was not a by-product of what Madonna did, it was the product itself.”

Uncommon People: the Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars
David Hepworth
Bantam Press, 368pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder