Like James Gandolfini, or Lucille Ball, John Grant got famous later in life, after 40. He’d spent the latter part of his thirties trying to kick alcohol, crack, coke and syphilis. When things weren’t working out with his band, the Czars, he’d subsidise his income while indulging his love of languages, working as an interpreter at a hospital in New York.
This year, Grant spent his 50th birthday riding roller coasters in Ohio. It was a controlled risk compared to the ones he used to take. In 2010, he told me he’d slept with HIV-positive men as a game of “Russian roulette”. A couple of years later, on stage, he revealed that this was a game he had lost. But Grant was alive and kicking: his debut album, Queen of Denmark, entranced people with its exquisite songcraft, sardonic humour and sensitivity. He didn’t even need his back story, but he had a great one – raised in Colorado in an orthodox Methodist community that believed gay people were going to hell.
There was something about Grant, looking back, which didn’t have a parallel in any other emerging “critics’ darling” of the time. After his late and sudden arrival, he was allotted the space to unfold under the spotlight with an enormous amount of good will, and it was not just the development of the music but the growth of the person that interested the audience – though the two were clearly unsplittable. He represents a very human set of contradictions: a redeemed man skirting the threat of a dangerously addictive personality; a pure romantic with a knack for despair; a sharp empathiser with a talent for cartoon levels of navel-gazing.
In his songs, horrific experiences are set alongside transcendent ones; cynicism alongside childlike wonder. Grant is one of our bigger musical personalities, but he is also just a musician, not a rock star – the self is the songs, six-foot four, and shovel-bearded. For his second album, he had a swift musical epiphany on a trip to Iceland, and decided to go electronic: his stately piano accompaniments turned into solos twirled from the knobs of a Nord Lead synth.
His fourth album, Love Is Magic, is a natural continuation, and a menagerie of analogue voices are here, including the Oberheim Xpander, which, in his words, “should be president of the United States”, and the Prophet T8, which “sounds creamier than Cornish clotted and Devonshire double cream combined”. On first hearing, the synths – waily, twinkly, retro, cosmic, spectral – overwhelm the scene; songs are six minutes long, without the toffee-rich, thud-thud pacing of his rock ballads. The lyrics of “Metamorphosis” seem random – like oblique strategies panned from Grant’s distinctive gross humour: “Fourteen-year-old boy rapes 80-year-old man!” But listen again and a big, classic Grant song reveals itself – his Scooby-Doo rapping falls off into sudden deep space, with a hair-raising shift of tone: “They took her in an ambulance, and that is where she died.”
Grant has always exploited his musical mood swings. There are satires about his favourite archetype, the preening man: the squelchy disco track “Preppy Boy” delights in his desire for a lacrosse-playing jock (“If you’ve got an opening, I am unemployed”) and “He’s Got His Mother’s Hips” is, he says, a fun song built on disgust. He plays the bully boyfriend in “Diet Gum”: “Do you even know what a collective noun is, Stupidzilla?” (“A patheticness of fuckwits”.)
But despite the jokes and barbs, love remains Grant’s sacred place. In 2010’s “Outer Space”, he captured all the shock of finding it – his stunned, almost deadpan lyrics, trammelled into meandering melodic lines, were the musical equivalent of lying flat on your back, floored by a sense of your own good luck. “Is He Strange” is full of the same wondrous surprise: “Is he strange, or is it you who never saw the light? Decades of everything wrong give way to everything right.” “Touch and Go” is his tribute to the Wikileaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who transitioned in prison and was punished for a suicide attempt by a spell in solitary confinement. Even this is a kind of long-distance love song, or awe song, rich in empathy: “What was going through your head as they struck you to the ground?”
Grant’s voice dips and climbs through whatever musical landscape he sets himself in, giving the impression of melodies – and revelations – discovered by him, in the very moment you’re hearing them yourself. It could be this that keeps people attached to the music, or to the person, although of course they are one and the same.
Love Is Magic
On this week’s episode of The Back Half, Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman discuss John Grant’s new album Love is Magic and the Netflix series Maniac, and then celebrate another noniversary.
This article appears in the 10 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How austerity broke Britain