That wry, pitch-black sense of humor and blistering wit are as integral a part of the John Grant live experience, as that sonorous baritone voice or any of those brutally honest lyrics. Like Mark Kozelek, the man doesn’t mince words when he’s in front of an audience, and the unflinching, sarcastic banter is often both sharply direct and hilariously impromptu. The little tales he spins are as engrossing as the musical performances themselves. Since he collaborated with Midlake on his 2010 debut, the Reykjavík-based artist, who once led the Denver, alt-rock band the Czars, has become a darling of the critics. His two solo albums have both been universally-revered, he has adorned the track lists of various soundtracks and compilations, and been prominently featured on Hercules and Love Affair’s recent album The Feast of the Broken Heart. From the pastoral chamber pop of Queen of Denmark to its electronic-tinged successor Pale Green Ghosts, Grant’s solo compositions have established him as a rara avis amongst modern pop musicians.
When it was announced last year that he would be reinterpreting his back catalogue with the assistance of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, the news wouldn’t have shocked any diehard Grant enthusiast. He has often incorporated chamber and orchestral textures in his songs to a remarkably successful degree. Unlike some musicians who asphyxiate their work with mawkish string arrangements in order to hide the absence of any raw emotion, within Grant’s hands, their appearance only accentuates the strength of his sincere song craft. Throughout the course of sixteen tracks, composer Fiona Brice’s elegant arrangements leave Grant’s songs uncluttered, wisely avoiding any overdramatic, audio pageantry. Together, her collaboration with Grant culminates in a dream project, one that highlights the strengths of each artist’s respective talents, and results in one of the most incendiary live albums in recent memory.
John Grant has a predilection for intimate balladry and this live recording highlights some of the finest selections his brief solo career has to offer. If there is anything to quibble about, it might be that the concert could have benefitted from the addition of a few more uptempo tracks, such as “Black Belt” or “Ernest Borgnine”. The menacing beats that pierce the heart of “Pale Green Ghosts” only taunt the listener with the prospect of what this project might have been if Grant and Brice had been more brazen concerning song selection and tempo. How bloody incredible it would it have been to hear Brice work her magic on the LCD Soundsystem-esque track “Sensitive New Age Guy”? We’ll never know.
Sometimes the marriage between sweeping strings and electronic-tinged textures is roaringly successful, as on any of the available recordings of UK progressive breaks act Hybrid. Other times, the orchestral elements detract from the rawness of the originals, essentially ripping out their fangs and enervating everything in the process, as on Jeff Mills’ anticlimactic Blue Potential Live with Montpelier Philharmonic Orchestra. Aside from a few squelchy synth passages that embellish “Vietnam”, this musical matrimony only appears twice during the course of the concert. When it materializes within the title track to Pale Green Ghosts or the amusingly snarky “You Don’t Have To”, these clever arrangements demonstrate that Grant and Brice can pull this task off with ease and aplomb.
Highlights abound and the record flows perfectly from one song to the next, one album to another. Featuring a lyrical laundry list of candied contents from a vintage sweet shop menu in Grant’s hometown of Buchanan, Michigan, the cinematic “Marz” sounds resplendent with the addition of a larger string section and that diaphanous flute solo. The nostalgic “Fireflies” was cast aside as a bonus track on Queen of Denmark, but here, the gorgeous song claims its rightful spot amongst its brethren.
There are other moments of musical transcendence strewn throughout, such as the cascading string intro to “Caramel” and its haunting oboe passage, the delicate intimacy found within the reduced orchestral arrangement of the Czars’ doleful track “Drug”, or the amplified, electric violin that heightens the seething indignation of “Queen of Denmark”. While the burst of brass, strings and guitars that crown the conclusion of “Glacier” are undeniably stunning, there is something quite spine-tingling about the use of Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C# Minor” in Grant’s “Pale Green Ghosts”. The track was ominous and claustrophobic on the original recording, but here Grant’s trek along Colorado’s highway I-25, feels like a desolate descent into the mouth of madness.
There is only one other minor, noticeable blemish to be found within this live performance, and that lies in the paucity of John’s scathing commentary and his clever anecdotal asides. Infrequently scattered between a handful of the tracks, their appearance is a a welcome reminder that Grant is as masterful a raconteur as he is an accomplished singer-songwriter. When the repartee pops up, its appearance enlivens the proceedings with an intimacy that makes the concert feel as though it is all some well-orchestrated (pun intended) jam session in John’s apartment. When he says, “Now I get to do some swearing. A little more swearing. I’ll start to break out in a rash if I don’t swear every thirty minutes or so”, on the track “GMF”, it’s hard not to crack a smile.
From Deep Purple, Metallica and the Divine Comedy, to Elbow and Annie Lennox, there might be nothing new or novel about the concept of indie groups, rock bands and pop musicians performing with orchestras, but when it is done particularly well, their inclusion transcends mere schlock and gimmickry. There is nothing contrived or disingenuous to be found here, and the grounded sincerity of Grant’s lyrics prevent the pomp and circumstance of it all from flying high into the rafters. On “You Don’t Have To” he sings, “Remember how we used to fuck all night long / Neither do I, because I always passed out / I needed lots of the booze / To handle the pain.” Beyond the drugs and alcohol, beyond addiction, beyond the darkness of suicidal thoughts and self-loathing, there is peace to be made with all those demons from the past. Grant’s crippling internal and external turmoil has ultimately led to a new lease on life, and here, accompanied by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, he celebrates the beauty of acceptance.