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 worst Oscar-winning films of all time

How hated movies have grabbed their space in the spotlight. 

Whilst the biggest surprise at last night’s Oscars was undoubtedly the part where they weren’t sure who’d actually won Best Picture, Suicide Squad also raised a few eyebrows. The critically-panned superantihero non-classic managed to take home an Academy Award, albeit in the category of Best Makeup and Hairstyling. Which raises the question: is Suicide Squad the worst film to have ever won an Oscar?

Obviously, the quality of a film is an ultimately subjective measure. Suicide Squad is someone’s favourite movie; every film is someone’s favourite movie, except for Sex Lives of the Potato Men. But if we want to get an "objective" view, one was is to look at a measure of the critical consensus, like Tomatometer on the website Rotten Tomatoes, which counts the percentage of good and bad reviews a film has received from critics.

Here, Suicide Squad ranks at a lowly 26 per cent (with such glowing lines as the Wall Street Journal’s “an all-out attack on the whole idea of entertainment”), which is one of the lowest scores an Academy Award-winning movie has ever received. But not the lowest.

Michael Bay’s historically dubious epic Pearl Harbor, which managed a win for Best Sound Editing, has a rating of just 25 per cent. As well as its Oscar, Pearl Harbor won Worst Picture at "anti-Oscars" The Razzies, the first film to do so that also had one of the real awards.

This kind of "technical" award is a good route to unlikely Oscar glory. Middling John Lithgow-meets-Bigfoot comedy Harry and the Hendersons isn’t remembered as an award-winner, but it took home the gold for Harry's makeup job. It can sometimes be overlooked that most films are a massive team effort, and there's something heartwarming about the fact people can get still be rewarded for being very good at their job, even if that job is working on a mediocre-to-terrible movie.

Still, if no-one working on the actual film does their job right, you can always get someone decent to write a song. The not very good (score: 33 per cent) eighties "steel welder wants to learn ballet" movie Flashdance took an award home for the Giorgio Moroder-composed title theme. He would also later bring home a much better film’s sole award, when he penned Top Gun’s Take My Breath Away.

Picking the right song is how what may be the lowest-rated Oscar winner of all time did it: The Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor melodrama The Sandpiper has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of just 10 per cent, but win it did, for the song The Shadow of Your Smile (which isn’t even actually very good; Burt Bacharach’s What's New Pussycat? was robbed.)

Even an Oscar winner that is praised by contemporaries can be undone by the cruelty of time. One of the lowest-scoring winners is 1936’s Anthony Adverse, at just 13 per cent - not only did it win for Best Cinematography, Best Supporting Actress, Best Soundtrack and Best Editing, it was nominated for Best Picture. But however praised the historical epic might have been at the time, because Rotten Tomatoes aggregates reviews from online media, it does not appear to have dated well.

Perhaps awards can only ever reflect the critical mood of the time - Singin’ In The Rain has a 100 per cent Tomatometer score, but took home no Oscars. Best Picture that year went to The Greatest Show On Earth, now judged a 44 per cent mediocrity. Perhaps by the 2080s film critics will be stunned that the newly re-appreciated acting masterclass Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest only won for its visual effects, be baffled that the lauded classic Suicide Squad wasn’t a Best Picture contender, and be absolutely 100 per cent certain that Jared Leto was the finest actor of his generation. Maybe the apocalypse wouldn’t be so bad after all.