John Grant's 'Love Is Magic' Shows Off Exquisite Ballads and Irksome Electro Excursions
The masterful bearded balladeer John Grant's fourth LP, Love Is Magic, rarely matches the soaring heights of his past triumphs.
Love Is Magic
12 October 2018
With each successive album, John Grant has peeled away the folk-rock trappings of his defunct outfit the Czars and expanded his color palette, dabbling in widescreen 1970s AOR, rubbery psych-funk, 1980s new wave, and foreboding orchestral electronica. In the press release for his fourth solo album, he proclaims that this "is closer still to how I've always wanted my records to sound", and while it might seem admirable that he dares to push his aesthetic into new directions, sometimes the muse can lead you astray. The masterful bearded balladeer has gone full electro this time, which perfectly aligns with the trajectory of his past two records, but this collection of songs simply isn't as strong as those that came before it. There are haunting, wickedly snarky moments scattered throughout Love Is Magic, but they rarely match the soaring heights of his past triumphs.
Grant is without a doubt one of the most gifted lyricists of the past two decades, and when the knives are out on this record, they are as razor-sharp as ever before. Nothing though is quite as scathing as Pale Green Ghosts' "GMF" or Queen of Denmark's sardonic "Where Dreams Go to Die". Depending on whether or not you can get past the album's quirky, eye-rolling opener or the sophomoric track "Diet Gum", there is much to be admired throughout these 58 minutes. Really though, it's just a matter of wading through fatuous lines like, "Yes it IS a chuckle of hyenas Dr. Turd Face", only to stumble upon a poignant passage such as, "In the halls and the churches / They were preening on their / Lofty perches / Indulging their conspiracies / And they were looking / Right at me." As the twinkling synth-arpeggios swell over a wall of arcade lasers within the climax of "Tempest", we the listener are reminded why Grant has become one of the most revered singer-songwriters of his generation. Persecution, escapism, and the torment of youth have seldom been so beautifully documented.
Unlike past single "I Wanna Go to Marz", with its confectionary catalog of childhood memories, or the "roller coasters and Earl Gray Malts" of Grey Tickles, Black Pressure's "Disappointing", the lists found on "Metamorphosis" feel oddly vomited onto the page. It's not until the glorious middle section, where Grant meditates upon the death of his mother, that the song throws off the shackles of its eccentricity and quietly blossoms. For a few fleeting minutes, as his voice is wrapped in fuzzy distortion, he offers his beating heart to the audience and gives them a glimpse into his raw pain. If the intention was to show a stark contrast between distracting news headlines, mundane, day-to-day events, and his tragic loss, Grant succeeds, but the majority of this camptastic song feels like an outtake from the soundtrack to Danny Elfman's The Nightmare Before Christmas. It is reasonable to assume that wasn't the intention.
Earlier this year, Grant teamed with the band Wrangler to release the sonically adventurous Mr. Dynamite under the name Creep Show. No one who heard that brilliant record would have been particularly astonished to discover his next album to be entirely dominated by synthesizers, but if anything, Love Is Magic proves that his sublime voice sounds fantastic in just about any musical setting. For those fans who longed for the warm familiarity of his earlier acoustic output, the lovely piano-led track "Is He Strange" and album closer "Touch and Go" — about imprisoned, transgender whistleblower Chelsea Manning — will hit the spot.
Grant turned 50 this past summer and thankfully with his latest outing, he shows no signs of creative fatigue. There are those who will bow down before this album and lift it to the rafters crying genius, but for every delicious club banger like "Preppy Boy" or strutting gem like "He's Got His Mother's Hips", there's a meandering clunker such as "The Common Snipe", which threaten to derail the record's momentum. Love Is Magic, however impassioned, brutally candid, and devilishly witty it might be at times, never really ignites like its predecessors. In a modern music scene dominated with paint-by-numbers artistry, Grant continues to defy expectation and challenge himself and his admirers.