What good are first impressions, anyway? As the saying goes, ‘you can’t judge a book by the cover,’ yet that is precisely the cover’s job! How many times do you decide which book to read, or what album to buy, or what movie to go see based solely on the companying artwork? The cover aside, first impressions of anything, from art to music to people themselves can be very misleading. Often, once you become better acquainted with the subject in question, you find your initials take was miles away from who they are at the core; a stick in the eye to that antiquated saying!
Then, there are those times that do nothing but reinforce that adage; my experience with John Grant’s second solo album, Pale Green Ghosts, fits perfectly into the latter category. The album and title track take their name from Grant’s nocturnal experiences driving the same highway I’d logged several thousand miles on. His depiction of the trees in the headlights I found brilliant; my curiosity was piqued.
But spinning the disc immediately left me nauseous. Save for a few brief moments of excellent songwriting, the album consisted of nothing but sniveling, whiny self-centered hatred; directed at an ex-lover and himself, alternately. All set against an infuriating backdrop constructed almost entirely of synthesizer beats and soaring string arrangements. (Iceland’s Birgir Þórarinsson produced the record, immediately presenting exactly what kind of Euro house dance music one should expect.) When Grant’s heavily enunciated belting is placed on top of weeping violins, the result is a disastrously over-melodramatic piece of self-aggrandizement you’d expect from the 9th grade drama queen.
Perhaps this is the ultimate “hipster” record, I questioned, so ensconced in irony that only sneering, trust funded 20-somethings could appreciate it (“GMF” boldly states, “I am the greatest motherfucker that you’re ever gonna meet,” then reminds the ex he could be laughing more. Is the previous statement an offer to assist with the humor?), so I went in search of how others received the album.
As it turns out, PGG was written in the aftermath of Grant’s discovery that he is HIV positive. (“Ernest Borgnine” candidly tells of the moment he was informed, somewhere in between synth whooshes and bleebs.) There aren’t many heavier burdens one could be given.
But even such a grave assessment could not change my initial reaction. Instead of the clichéd wider worldview and newfound love for others terminal patients often find, Grant falls further into narcissistic black hole, and would probably be shocked to find the world does not, in fact, revolve around him. He laments his middle age, yet his all-about-me lyrics are saturated in an emotional immaturity he should have grown out of 25 years ago. “GMF and “I Hate This Town” overuse of “fuck” stamps any and all meaning out of the word (no easy task, to be sure), before settling back into self pity.
I would not dream of telling John Grant how he should or is allowed to feel, and he is lucky he has found some kind out outlet for his emotions. However, if he chooses to spend the rest of his life in such a dark and negative place, it will be a sad disservice to his existence (and his talent).