“Childhood viewed through the prism of adulthood” is how John Grant describes the theme of his wonderful fifth album. This means his trademark (and occasionally claustrophobic) mordant wit and squirmy synths are leavened by warm breaths of retro Americana, from The Beach Boys to Michael Jackson. There’s even space for a clarinet and saxophone to breeze through a record that finds the 52-year-old Grant on his most romantic, melodic form, as he looks back on the pleasures and fears he faced growing up as a gay kid in America’s Midwest.
Boy from Michigan was recorded in the former Czars frontman’s adopted home of Reykjavik during the pandemic. Covid-19 arrived in Iceland while his friend and collaborator Cate Le Bon was in town to play a few live dates with him. They had assembled a band and, when both concert venues and her routes home were closed, the pair decided to make the best of the situation. Holed up in a studio for two months, they produced an album that feels like the most soul-settled of Grant’s impressive career.
It opens with a squidgy wriggle of synths, during which you can almost feel the friction of electric frequencies before Grant begins spinning tales of junkyards and five and dime stores. I was reminded of a concept that only exists in Korean called tugun tugun that, on one level, refers simply to the sound made when balloons rub against each other. On a deeper level, it means the yearning for childhood innocence. Raised in a religious, conservative culture, Grant’s own innocence would take a battering as he realised his sensitive nature didn’t fit into the heterosexual “cult of masculinity”. He didn’t come out until his mid-twenties.
Like fellow Michigan boy Sufjan Stevens, Grant is so specifically autobiographical that his memories will spark those of his listener. “You know my mother sewed clothes for Bertha Wrunklewich/ That lady who I always thought was rich…” begins the title track. Grant’s deep, wise baritone leads us steadily through the golden funk of lyrics that read like short story prose. He references local landmarks then recalls how he “was haunted by the stories about Connie’s car/ And how she barely got out when it caught on fire/ And a trucker came along and he saved her life and/ She was alright…” Clouds shift over the sonic mood, with the chords darkening as the adult artist looks back and warns his younger self: “The American Dream can cause scarring/ And some nasty bruising.”
But the hopes raised by that American dream continue to flicker through the record. They’re there in the dreamy, Sixties-surfer harmonies of “County Fair”, on which the cymbals sound as though they’re being brushed with candyfloss. They dance, bittersweet, with the clarinet that flutters through “Mike and Julie” and dances more jauntily on “The Cruise Room”, where Grant looks back through a “pink art deco glow” at a friend “not knowing all the things we didn’t know”. That clarinet seems to have wandered in straight from the theme tune to vintage sitcom Cheers, conjuring all the missed opportunities for camaraderie in a divided America. A country that could have been a place where “people are all the same” and “everybody knows your name” but is now bitterly torn.
On that score, Grant tackles Donald Trump on the slow piano dirge, “The Only Baby (That Bitch Could Have)”, which finds him casting the former president as the bastard son of Liberty, the nation’s virgin mother. “Your Portfolio” sees him laying into “Automatic perfection/ Information technology/ Strict foreclosure/ Authorisation validity check/ Hostile takeover/ Statutory instrument/ Non-performing asset…” You can hear Grant’s contempt in the way he spits out the vocabulary of his enemies. He has more fun with language on the gleefully daft “Rhetorical Figure”, flexing his wit with: “Some people like alliteration/ But I have always been an assonance man/ Ah-Ee-Ah-Oh-Ah…” He sings in Russian and German, smart alec-ing about with words like “paraprosdokians” and “aposiopesis”.
All that falls away on the tender “Just So You Know”, a ballad Grant wrote to be played at his funeral. After two decades of worrying that his mother (who died over two decades ago) didn’t know much he loved her, he has decided to leave his friends and family in no doubt. “I know at times it hurt to see/ How my troubled mind could put/ The hurts on me,” he croons. But “I felt it that you loved me.” It’s a lovely, generous song. From a lovely, generous album.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies