You’d be forgiven for not knowing John Grant from the band he fronted for ten years, The Czars. The acclaim their four records received was never matched with commercial success and the band split in 2004. They did, however, have superfans in Midlake, who convinced Grant to make an album in their studio, serving as his backing band in the process.
The resulting ‘Queen of Denmark‘, released on Bella Union in 2009, is a painfully honest, funny and sardonic account of the singers struggle with drug addiction, rejection and his sexuality, all of which is offset by a sparse, lush 1970s soft rock sound and a rich baritone voice. Growing up as a repressed gay teenager in a conservative Midwest town and as an adult, scarred from booze, drug abuse and elusive true love, John Grant has a deep well of fraught experiences to draw from. Queen of Denmark has been somewhat of a slow-burner, after slipping out quietly in late 2009, it gathered steady word of mouth momentum to eventually being awarded 2010 Album of the Year by Mojo.
Grant cuts a figure befitting his broad, deep voice on the stage of the Button Factory, backed by a lone keys player, his bashful, humble manner affirm the sense of brittle self belief and humility thats reflected in his songs. The opener, ‘You Don’t Have To (Pretend to Care)‘, recalls a “seven year relationship that lasted six years too long“. He stands like a statue at the mic like a sort of nervous tenor, moving only to knock out an ELO-esque monosynth solo, prompting a few giggles and universal applause from a packed floor.
‘Sigourney Weaver‘, which on the surface appears to be a tongue in cheek remark on the movie Alien, ultimately reveals a man who is at odds with himself and the world around him. ‘Where Dreams go to Die‘ and ‘It’s Easier‘ find Grant in comfortable territory, singing beautifully written, sorrowful tales of broken love. ‘I Wanna Go To Marz‘, he explains, refers to an ice cream store from his childhood. There’s smiles all around as he lists off seemingly endless combinations of the 31 flavours and a few planets whilst playing deliberate notes on a compact synth that he hugs like an old accordion, all the time resembling a downtrodden busker from the future.
The mood shifts with ‘Outer Space‘, which the singer admits is “a positive song for a change.” Again he throws in some sci-fi imagery to colour a sweet, witty tune. In ‘Chicken Bones‘, a bitter reflection on his childhood in which “it was totally normal to be a racist cunt“, there’s an attempt to compensate for the lack any rhythm section with some punchy R&B piano that would make Jools blush and some awkward half hearted dancing. Its catchy nonetheless but relative to the stronger, more downbeat songs seems a bit trite. Staying upbeat, ‘Silver Platter Club‘, is a jaunty tune reminiscent of Maxwells Silver Hammer and as he explains, his way of apologising for not being the chest beating, sports fan that he perceived his brothers to be.
‘Jesus Christ Hates Faggots‘, is an eyebrow raising toe tapper that, as the title might suggest, finds the singer bemoaning hypocritical bigots who use religion to attack homosexuals. ‘TC and the Honeybear‘, a soaring tale of heartbreak is adapted nicely for the duo with theremin like noodling in place of a female falsetto and dramatic piano strikes in place of picking guitar. A couple of choice Czars tunes follow, ‘LOS‘ and ‘Drugs‘ before giving his performance of the night, ‘Queen of Denmark‘, a cathartic masterpiece depicting his slide into despair and self loathing before bellowing out a dramatic finale, surprising everyone with high notes of remarkable power and clarity.
‘Caramel‘, a flawlessly delivered Rufus Wainwright-like fan favourite is followed by ‘Little Pink House‘ and a standing ovation whereupon a slightly taller John Grant takes a bow.
1. You Don’t Have To (Pretend To Care)
2. Sigourney Weaver
3. Where Dreams Go To Die
4. I Wanna Go To Marz
5. Outer Space
6. Chicken Bones
7. Silver Platter Club
8. It’s Easier
9. JC Hates Faggots
10. TC and the Honeybear
13. Queen of Denmark
16. Little Pink House