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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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