FIRST PUBLISHED ON 22 MAY 2013 IN THE LINE OF BEST FIT
John Grant is an artist that inspires evangelism among his followers. You could see it when Midlake, self-confessed super-fans of Grant’s former band the Czars, coaxed him out of obscurity and into their studio to record his solo debut, Queen of Denmark.
It was apparent in the manner in which said album took off: there was a real, old-fashioned, word-of-mouth feel to its ascendency (living abroad at the time, I received various emails from people in the UK telling me I simply had to get my hands on his record). There’s the sell-out British tour and the fact that every time there’s a moment of silence in tonight’s jam-packed Shepherd’s Bush Empire, a gaggle of infatuated revellers will loudly declare their unconditional love for him. Throughout, I’m half expecting a pair of knickers to land at his feet, as he self-consciously shimmies his way through a stellar performance.
He emerges to the groan of a synthesizer that’s so sonorous, it feels like it’s coming from the bowels of the old Empire itself. The 4/4 backbeat to ‘You Don’t Have To’ ushers him toward the mic, the lights flickering fluorescent. New album Pale Green Ghosts is a departure, for sure, but it’s arguably not until you’ve seen him perform it live that you realise just how different he intended it to be. In a week dominated by the catfight over Daft Punk’s new record, the title track, performed to a mesmerising green light show, reminds us all what a great dance tune should sound like. The searing synth riff of ‘It Doesn’t Matter to Him’, too, bellow around the theatre: louder, dancier and bolder than you could ever have envisioned (although I’d hazard that anyone who’s heard it on this tour will only ever hear it this way again).
Grant’s gallows humour transcends both of his records and it’s to the fore tonight too. From the deadbeat anthem ‘Queen of Denmark’ to the goofy existentialism of ‘Sigourney Weaver’, Grant has a Vonnegut-esque ability to sugarcoat the most barbed and venomous couplets in comedy. Often, too, the melody Grant hangs the lyrics on is at odds with the content: Grant himself draws the comparison between ‘I Hate This Town’ (about depression and alienation) and Abba’s ‘Chiquitita’ (a slightly more trivial number about teenage heartbreak), before regaling us with his confusion over how the band’s Frida would clap as she performed live (of course, he had us all join in).
Between tracks, too, his patter has the power to thaw the most hardened hearts. ‘Ernest Borgnine’, he tells the audience, is about how he felt when he was diagnosed with HIV, before setting the audience off in laughter again with a joke and an anecdote about Borgnine, the hero he once got to meet.
“I hope you can feel this,” he tells the crowd, clasping at his heart as he takes leave of his encore. We can – everybody can. From the moment he introduces his Icelandic band and thanks the support act before singing a note, to the final moments of ‘Caramel’, this has been an extraordinary occasion marked by humility and warmth.
Over the past months, there’s been a hell of a lot lot written about Grant’s illness, his depression and his addictions. Tonight, though, has been about his remarkable ability to channel his many-headed demons into something positive and beautiful.