Too much hu­mour, too lit­tle heart

LOVE IS MAGIC

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - THE CRITICAL LIST - By Neil McCormick

John Grant Bella Union

How you feel about John Grant’s fourth solo al­bum may well de­pend on whether you can make it past the mu­si­cally schizoid and lyri­cally be­wil­der­ing open­ing track. En­ti­tled Meta­mor­pho­sis, it im­prob­a­bly com­bines abra­sively camp, comic and highly stylised elec­troshock cabaret (in which he ex­trav­a­gantly de­claims non se­quiturs such as “Baby’s in the whitest house play­ing with his toys / Earth­quakes! For­est fires! Hot Brazil­ian Boys!”) with a gen­tle, melodic med­i­ta­tion on the death of a loved one (“As I en­joyed dis­trac­tion, she just slipped away”).

The heart of this song is a vis­ceral evo­ca­tion of numb­ing grief, but the ef­fect is likely to be too dis­ori­ent­ing for any but his most ded­i­cated ad­mir­ers. It is as if he is in­ten­tion­ally smash­ing dis­tinct as­pects of his mu­si­cal per­sona to­gether – sav­agely witty club banger and ten­der bal­ladeer – just to see which is left stand­ing. Such is the force of Grant’s show­man­ship that his sen­si­tive side is all but over­whelmed, to the al­bum’s detri­ment.

Grant’s meta­mor­pho­sis has been fas­ci­nat­ing to watch. The 50 year-old was a late bloomer, per­fect­ing his songcraft on six un­justly over­looked al­bums of indie Amer­i­cana with the Czars. Break­ing free of song­writ­ing con­ven­tion on 2010’s Queen of Den­mark, he un­leashed his per­son­al­ity in a riot of gor­geous melodies and ar­rest­ingly hon­est, streamof-con­scious­ness lyrics.

The sense of strug­gle that in­fused Grant’s early work may have been par­tic­u­lar to his ex­pe­ri­ence – he’s a gay man from the re­pres­sive Mid­west, where he self­med­i­cated to com­bat anx­i­ety – but it tapped into uni­ver­sal emo­tions, and was ren­dered even more ac­ces­si­ble by his par­o­dic soft-rock ten­den­cies. Yet as each al­bum has be­come more elec­tron­i­cally driven and lyri­cally out­ra­geous, Grant is in dan­ger of paint­ing him­self into a niche.

Which is a pity, be­cause Love Is Magic is full of songs that de­serve to be heard by the widest pos­si­ble au­di­ence. The ti­tle track is a heart-burst­ing por­trait of a lonely man be­ing re­as­sured that love is worth the ef­fort. Set to lux­u­ri­ous bil­low­ing synths, Grant’s creamy bari­tone is im­mensely af­fect­ing. Is He Strange is an­other deeply mov­ing bal­lad, its mood of stately drama evok­ing the end of an af­fair with a tone of bit­ter­sweet wis­dom.

But such emo­tion­ally

PAINTED INTO A COR­NER Emo­tional songs are in­ter­spersed with sar­cas­tic pen por­traits

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