A never less than excellent lyricist, it was when John Grant went solo with 2010’s ‘Queen Of Denmark’ that his capacity for beautifully balanced wit and imagery truly emerged. Its title track included the gem, “I hope you know that all I want from you is sex, to be with someone who looks smashing in athletic wear.”
‘Ernest Borgnine’ on the follow up, ‘Pale Green Ghosts’, and ‘Voodoo Doll’ from 2015’s ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’ highlighted his deft touch with complex subject matter, while his musical template continued its sizeable strides from the 70s AOR core of his debut.
Earlier this year came ‘Mr Dynamite’, an album made by Grant with electro band Wrangler under the name Creep Show. Its squelchy irreverence is a useful reference point when trying to make sense of ‘Love Is Magic’.
‘Metamorphosis’, which touches on the intensity of 21st century online culture and the messages to which we are constantly exposed – sample lyric: “14-year-old boy rapes 80- year-old man” from an actual newspaper headline – has its verses delivered in an archly unhinged manner before giving way to a strung out, vocoder-assisted bliss. It’s simultaneously quirkily charming and, frankly, a little grating.
‘Diet Gum’ is an even more extreme example of this unchecked irony. The concept – an artful spoken-word takedown of an astronomically self-righteous man who crumbles at the thought of more memorable sex with a well-endowed ex-partner – is genuinely hilarious. Once. However great it is musically, it’s like listening to a sketch over and over in quick succession.
Several of the tracks on ‘Love Is Magic’ are afflicted by the trappings of novelty, disrupting the flow of the album when the comic surprise has faded. This is not to say there aren’t moments of Grant’s dependable and undeniable genius on show here. ‘Is He Strange’ has a magically, melodically languid chorus, while ‘Tempest’ is a logical evolution of the bleepy balladry that has been the highpoint of previous albums.
‘Preppy Boy’ is an electropop monster and ‘He’s Got His Mother’s Hips’ does the mid-paced disco stomper thing to grand effect. Closer ‘Touch And Go’ is breath-taking, continuing Grant’s knack for a bold ending by focusing empathetically on Chelsea Manning’s time in prison.
Grant has talked of ‘Love Is Magic’ being his best album and it’s hard not to see it as a pretty definitive artistic statement in terms of allowing him the freedom to proceed unfettered. It makes for a somewhat uneven listen, but the highs remain very high. An artist with a rare talent is never served well by standing still and it is pointless to expect them to repeatedly churn out the same material.
Flawed but unbowed, it is a fascinating but frustrating listen.
Words: Gareth James
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