Macklemore and Ryan Lewis established their cred as gay allies with their earnest if clunky “Same Love”. But John Grant’s “Glacier” is a vastly superior take on homophobia and its injuries, hidden and otherwise. The closing track on Grant’s much-acclaimed 2013 album Pale Green Ghosts, “Glacier” is a seven-minute-plus, piano-driven ballad sung by Grant in an intimate, direct-address style that is quietly devastating.
Grant is singing to any young gay person struggling with sexuality and societal rejection. “So don’t you become paralyzed with fear / When things seem particularly rough,” he advises. But he may also be thinking of his younger self. He was an anguished gay teenager in Parker, Colorado, as he recounted in an interview with MetroWeekly: ‘‘Once it had been pounded into me that I was not really a human being [and that] there was something very wrong with me … I sort of just gave up. I didn’t try in school anymore, because I didn’t think there was any sort of future for me anyway.”
The singer came through those dark years, albeit after a period of substance abuse, a failed relationship, and becoming HIV-positive. He is wildly candid about himself and his failings on Pale Green Ghosts, whose 11 tracks mainly concern the breakup of a short-lived but intense relationship. The raw pain of the songs fortunately is leavened by Grant’s sardonic humor, and his pungent anger.
“Glacier” isn’t the least bit funny, but its anger is definitely bracing: “Don’t you pay them fuckers as they say no never mind / They don’t give two shits about you / It’s the blind leading the blind / What they want is commonly referred to as theocracy / And what that boils down to is referred as hypocrisy.”
Grant is telling his young gay listeners that they don’t have to go through the misery he did, but also that whatever pain they’re suffering can be transformative—and can even produce beauty. “This pain, it is a glacier moving through you / And carving out deep valleys / And creating spectacular landscapes / And nourishing the ground / With precious minerals and other stuff.”
The song’s arrangement, with its lush strings and Rachmaninoff piano coda, gives the track a romantic grandeur that feels cinematic – the gay boy or girl becomes the protagonist of his/her own story instead of a villain in the twisted tales told by bigots.
The video for “Glacier” telescopes nearly a century of gay history into its 7:57 running time, with split-screen images of oppression and setbacks, but also of resistance and victories. There are violent police raids and Stonewall rioters; AIDS and ACT UP; gay witch hunts in government and the military and mass demonstrations and Pride parades. The video brilliantly situates the struggles of the young gay person to whom John Grant is singing within the broad sweep of a history that still is unfolding.