Music review: John Grant, Heaven, London

Doling out hard-won wisdom with his new band, larger venues may await for the American songwriter

If anyone has earned the right to dole out hard-won wisdom on stage, it is John Grant, a wounded bear of a man who wears his scars lightly. “This song is dedicated to me,” he notes ruefully before the quietly uplifting ‘Glacier’, the closing message song both on his new album and in his main set tonight, that tells us we learn from pain.

Growing up gay in small-minded mid-west America, suffering depression and struggling musically for many years, Grant has had more than his fair share of knocks. Last summer, he revealed on stage at Meltdown that he had become HIV+, adding extra poignancy to his second solo album Pale Green Ghosts, currently just outside the midweek Top 10. Only tonight’s opening number, ‘Ernest Borgnine’, refers directly to the “disease”, and even that comes leavened with Grant’s ironic humour.

Even though it has only been out a few days, the bearded singer delivers the album in full to a rapt reception, testament to the quality of his writing. Essentially a break-up record, Grant’s wry sense of the absurd makes the impotent rage more palatable as he forensically examines a relationship’s decline. The artist also brings a rich baritone that encompasses both the gorgeous pure notes of ‘It Doesn’t Matter To Him’ and a retro new wave style on the album’s title track.  Its icy synth pulses mark a transition from his previous effort, 2010’s Queen Of Denmark. Instead of working with Texan outfit Midlake, he has turned to a more electronic sound using collaborators mainly based in his new home, Iceland, also staying local for his touring band.

Pale Green Ghosts’ more freewheeling nature is amplified live as the group move from the windswept ‘GMF’, a rare self-affirming anthem that most resembles Grant’s previous work, through the robotic disco-funk of ‘Blackbelt’ to Nilsson-esque piano-led stomper ‘I Hate This Town’. The mix of chilly synth-pop and rock ballad jars at times as Grant joins two keyboardists to slather sci-fi squelches or tinny synth-strings over his exquisite tunes (this is one of the band’s first outings, so could be a teething issue). If the aim is to puncture his material’s gravitas, Grant succeeds, though he could rely on his rapport with the crowd and a shy diffidence that sees him respond politely to almost every audience request. They get their two encores, but as the charts suggest, larger venues await.