John Grant, with able help from Midlake, delivers scintillating, personal songwriting.
As a document that collates the range of human emotion from innocence to vengeance, you’d do well to find one more detailed and entertaining than Queen of Denmark. John Grant, newly lonesome after the demise of the Czars, here teams up with God’s own backing band, Midlake, to deliver a master class in expressive songwriting. It’s not as if he’s especially serious about the whole affair, but by virtue of some neat tricks and impeccable delivery, Grant manages to imbue his writing with the lightest gravitas. It's a canny achievement.
“TC & Honeybear” is a prime example, an initially light story about an imagined romance between Top Cat and friend that slowly, but very perceptibly, expands into a gorgeous, dramatic sweep. What starts with bassoon and flute becomes operatic vocals and crashing sadness as the pair are torn apart. “Please don’t take him ‘cos I love him,” forms the climax. This Grandaddy-esque trick of placing enormous emotional import on the apparently inanimate or lifeless works supremely well. It is telling that this is the only song available to hear on Grant’s MySpace, for what better encapsulation of his tone and quality is there?
Well, the answer is obviously none, but what follows that stellar opening track is generally almost as perfect. Grant takes on many roles, from stargazing youth to bitter dumper, and at all times he remains capable of consummate narrative music. That stargazing youth’s attitude pervades the opening of the quite ridiculous “Sigourney Weaver”, with this hilariously dry description of the titular heroine when Buerke tries to bring an alien back to Earth. “She couldn't believe her ears,” takes the lyrical biscuit for the whole record. It’s knowing, it’s playful and just about on the right side of stupid, a potent mix if ever there was one.
The only moments when Grant comes close to failing (that’s comparative, he’s still some way off) come when the sentiment of the song doesn’t match the execution. “Silver Platter Club” contains rather worn lyrical themes of entitlement and personal disappointment, but at least in the hands of Midlake the music manages to delight. Dancing around in a carnivalesque fashion to such an effective extent that any thematic clichés are moot, even the clichés can’t completely sink this one.
Closing with a song nearly as strong as the opener is the final ace for the record. The title track is everything that Grant has been building to for the previous 40 minutes or so. We’ve gotten to know his foibles intimately, as well as his strengths, but he reserves genuine, childish and triumphant bitterness for the very end.
The detail knows no bounds. Countering his ex-lover’s “you tell me that my life is based upon a lie,” with “I casually mention that I pissed in your coffee,” is utterly gleeful and spiteful, but the lullaby nature of the piano accompaniment makes it a total sarcastic success. The chorus, such as it is, is a series of staccato chords so beautifully recorded that you can almost hear the fist connecting with the piano. Indeed, partway through the second lullaby verse, the bass mistakenly hammers, a la the chorus, resulting in some audible studio laughter. If anything it adds humanity to the atmosphere. Ultimately that humanity has to come from believing John Grant’s words and performance. With a pop song so brazenly fiery and delivered with such relish as this, it is sealed. Upon this song’s culmination, it is impossible not to hail the arrival of the Queen of Denmark with due celebration.