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March 14, 2013 5:18 pm
You know you’re in for a gruelling evening when in the first song the headline act sings about discovering he’s HIV positive. Except in John Grant’s hands such distressing confidences aren’t at all gruelling. Related in his calm, soothing baritone, set to gently rising and falling melodies, they are instead utterly beguiling. Thus tonight turned out to be the most uplifting evening of songs about drug abuse, self-loathing, obsessive relationships and suicide you could hope to hear.
Grant, 44, has a chequered music career. In the 1990s, living in Denver, he was in a band called The Czars, which ultimately broke up amid the considerable chaos of Grant’s personal life. Guilt-racked from a strict evangelical upbringing about being gay, he fell into a vortex of alcoholism, cocaine addiction and dangerous sex. Sobriety followed a move to New York where, after a long break from music – he was convinced he was a failure – he was persuaded by admirers to write a solo album.
The Queen of Denmark came out in 2010 and was one of the year’s most widely praised releases. Now comes the follow-up Pale Green Ghosts , which he played in its entirety at Heaven. It opened with an oscillating electronic hum, played by Grant sitting at a synthesizer. His debut was imbued with memories of 1970s soft-rock, the likes of Elton John and Bread, but since moving to Berlin (he now lives in Reykjavik) the singer-songwriter has embraced electronic music. Pale Green Ghosts makes this dramatic swerve seem like a wholly natural progression.
Opening song “Ernest Borgnine” found him singing “I got the disease” over a needling electro beat, epidemiological infectiousness palliated by a different kind of catchiness. “You Don’t Have to” addressed a catastrophic relationship with wit and cutely splashy synth solos. The suicide of a friend was the subject of “Sensitive New Age Guy”. Even this dismal scenario was given an upbeat memorial with lithe electro-pop and a darkly funny anecdote about the death.
A backing band fleshed out the warm melodies that link Grant’s two albums. He ended the show with several Queen of Denmark songs, but it was the new material that stood out. “Glacier”, about the deep shame he used to feel about his sexuality, its music a slow piano march building to a flamboyant climax, summed up his strange and wonderful gift for conveying painful intimacies in a musical language devoid of angst.
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