Over a decade into his solo career, John Grant is still very much ploughing his own furrow. His quartet of solo albums since leaving The Czars have defined him as one of the great songwriters of our age, whether it the heartbreaking balladry of Queen Of Denmark, or the playful, often hilarious disco-funk of Grey Tickles Black Pressure.
Grant’s fifth solo record, Boy From Michigan is another idiosyncratic trip into the mind of John Grant. It’s oddly both comfortingly familiar, and also jarringly different to anything he’s done before. It’s another painfully honest, autobiographical record but it’s so full of ideas, it’s almost hard to take at first.
It’s certainly not an easy listen, and those yearning for more sad torch songs like Pale Green Ghosts‘ GMF or Glacier are likely to be disappointed. The electronica side of Grant’s music dominates now – his long-term friend and collaborator Cate Le Bon is on production duties, and she’s created a dense, often harsh soundscape to work with. With the average song duration about seven minutes, and the sudden appearance of instruments like clarinets and saxophones, Boy From Michigan is very much an album on Grant’s own terms.
Most of the time, thankfully, its as fascinating a listen as his other records – it opens with a trio of songs about his early life in Michigan, the title track being an unsettling, eerie, synth heavy song that glides along for seven and a half minutes, punctuated occasionally with squalls of saxophone. It’s the perfect, disorienting opener for an album which often feels like it’s taking you into a different world.
The Cruise Room is one of Grant’s trademark piano ballads, talking of anonymous sex “in the pink-art deco glow”. It’s a shame that Grant’s magnificent voice is distorted by electronic effects, but that doesn’t rob the song of any emotional weight. The following Mike And Julie is a low-key, spacey number about a man sleeping with Grant, who puts the titular Julie in between them in order to stop himself accepting his sexuality. When Grant sings “Are you out there Mike, are you listening, I’m sorry”, it’s an impossibly powerful moment.
The impact of recording the album in the midst of a global pandemic and during the last US election also tells. Each song seems filled with nervous tension, as if we’re looking into the abyss of an unknowable future. Best In Me has the relentless beat and deadpan vocals of the best moments of LCD Soundsystem, like a floor filler at the disco at the end of the world. Just So You Know, on the other hand, is a swooning sincere love song which manages not to overstay its welcome, despite being nearly eight minutes long.
Sometimes, it does cross the line into self-indulgence. The Only Baby eviscerates the final days of Trump’s presidency, and for the most part it’s a gripping listen – Grant in full righteous anger mode, ranting about how we “shun the ones who do not get the Christian diseases, like cancer, MS, heart failure”, but at nearly 10 minutes long, it soon tails off, and we’re left with Grant endlessly repeating “that’s the only baby that bitch could have”. Sometimes, brevity can make more of a mark. There’s also the jarring, harsh electronica of Your Portfolio which soon becomes irritating, while Rhetorical Figure may be one of the lighter, more catchy moments, but the ’80s styling and Devo soundalike vocals become wearisome.
As ever with a John Grant album though, even its flaws go towards making a more interesting record. Boy From Michigan is not an easy album to get to grips with, nor is it one for background listening. For those willing to put the work in, this is another invigorating missive from one of music’s finest minds.