What does one do to top that first solo début album which had one and all nodding with approval? If you rehash the same formula that made the début so successful you stand accused of standing still and not progressing. If you push out the boundaries, then you get accused of straying from the template that made the previous album so successful. It’s a bit of a catch 22 situation. You can imagine John Grant facing this conundrum for this follow-up album “Pale Green Ghosts”.
What ended up being produced is an uneven album that is split half way between staying with what was successful last time around and delving into an experiment with electronic music. Title track Pale Green Ghosts and Blackbelt are the first curve balls with the former’s electronic didgeridoo sound a bit disconcerting at first. It’s not until Grant’s room filling voice enter the fray that a familiarity creeps in. After you’ve adjusted to the surprise, in terms of mood and structure, they are still typical John Grant songs.
One aspect that hasn’t changed is Grant’s lyrics, which are full of sardonic wit. From “What you got is a blackbelt in BS” on Blackbelt to more self-depreciating humour on GMF, as he proclaims “I should have practiced my scales and I should not be attracted to males”. Grant uses Vietnam is an analogy for using silence as a weapon, comparing it to agent orange in what is a lush string laden song. The sorrowful It Doesn’t Matter To Him is a song of loss and longing with especially strong melodies and a stunning vocal performance. This triumvirate of songs is what the majority of listeners would have expected to be on the record as they are similar to what was on “The Queen of Denmark”.
The album once again takes a turn, this time back to more electronic leanings for the next four tracks. Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore and You Don’t Have To are largely unremarkable and the experimentation doesn’t lend these two songs anything especially memorable. Sensitive New Age Guy with its questionable beat and squelches is a head scratching song. Grant’s trademark vocals are buried under a tonne of effects which instead of providing the song with an edge, only results in blunting it. Ernest Borgnine contains clunky beats before a cat strangling sax solo is shoehorned unnecessarily into the song. I Hate This Town and Glacier wrap up proceedings in more familiar territory and are among some of the finest songs Grant has crafted.
Expectations were undoubtedly high for this sophomore album, yet it feels like Grant was stuck between two stools on how to approach the album. John Grant has shown he still possesses a remarkable talent that displays moments of genius but that hasn’t resulted in “Pale Green Ghosts” being a wholly coherent album.