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Behind the Synth, John Grant’s Soul

Gay singer/ songwriter’s new album lays artifice on too strong

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Over the course of four solo albums — following a long run with the Denver band the Czars and a break from music — gay singer/ songwriter John Grant has gone from folk/ rock to synth-pop. This evolution says something about the fashions of our times: look at Mitski and St. Vincent embracing electronics and largely dropping electric guitar on their latest albums.

In 2014, Grant released a live album backed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, but his latest album, “Love Is Magic,” features all-electronic instrumentation apart from the contributions of bassist Paul Alexander. Throughout it, he seems torn between an attraction to bugged-out weirdness and a more conventional sensibility that uses irony and sarcasm as lyrical devices but really stands for something both personal and political.

“Love Is Magic” puts its oddest foot forward. The first song, “Metamorpho­sis,” begins with a rapid-fire run-down of social ills in an arch, affected accent over synth-pop gone very haywire. Halfway through, the music slows down considerably and Grant’s vocals sound far more natural, before returning to its original style for the song’s final minute. It’s the weakest point on “Love Is Magic,” with an aura of forced quirkiness. Picture Sparks and The Residents joining forces to revamp Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

The production on this album is deliberately artificial and rather cold. The booming drum machine never makes the slightest attempt to sound like live percussion. Keyboardist Benge (Ben Edwards), who combines vintage analog and digital synthesizers, brings together clear chords and melodies reminiscent of Kraftwerk — the first two minutes of “Tempest” suggest a rewrite of “The Robots” before the song gets noisier — with odder sounds bubbling deeper in the soundscape.

In the US, Grant has a cult audience, but his 2015 album “Grey Tickles, Black Pressure” hit the British and Irish top five. (Sinéad O’Connor sang backing vocals on it.) His memoir is on the way from Little, Brown. Now 50, he’s survived HIV, a religious background that instilled homophobia in him (“Jesus Hates Faggots,” from his first solo album, addresses this), and substance abuse; he was a teenager when the sounds “Love Is Magic” draws on were new.

But this album goes beyond mere nostalgia for The Human League and Gary Numan or the bland indie/ dance synthesis of groups like Chvrches and Bob Moses. Relying on synthesizers and drum machines for backing allows Grant to escape the expectation that he’s talking directly about his own life, even when he’s drawing on his experiences for material. The music video for the title track puts a different spin on the concept that “love is magic” by focusing on women playing with their dogs.

Grant returns to his mannered mode with spoken vocals aimed at an annoying would-be lover on “Diet Gum.” He sounds like he’s imitating a cross between a stereotypical 1980s Valley Girl and an equally stereotypical mean-spirited gay bar denizen, with references to leisure suits and “Seinfeld.” If Frank Zappa had been more gay- and disco-friendly, I could picture him dabbling in something like this, although the song’s chorus takes us back to the robotic feel of late ‘70s Kraftwerk: “I manipulate, that’s what I do.”

“Smug Cunt” is more succinct and enjoyable in directing the anger of its title at a man who “thinks he’s a stud” while being an entitled creep who’s complicit in violence. If Grant were writing hip-hop lyrics, he’d be great at battle rhymes. He has a knack for the turn of an insulting phrase, such as “a patheticness of fuckwits.”

“Love Is Magic” suggests that Grant plays to his strengths when he uses synthesizers to remain a relatively conventional, if left-field singer/ songwriter. Songs like “Preppy Boy” and “Is He Strange” are frank about his desire for men. The lyrics of “The Common Snipe” offer facts about the bird named in its title, but they build up to a metaphor about the difficulties of love. (It provides some context for the album cover, which depicts Grant with his head in a birdcage and his chest covered by a feathered shirt.) On “Touch and Go,” Grant drops any shields of irony and persona to celebrate Chelsea Manning’s whistleblowing and resistance against transphobia. “What they think is patriotic barely passes for robotic/ and not one of them could last three minutes in your shoes,” he opines.

“Love Is Magic” would be a stronger album if it omitted “Diet Gum” and “Metamorpho­sis.” It’s hard to remember that Grant’s first solo album featured backing from the Americana band Midlake, which Wikipedia labels “soft rock.” At heart, he’s not that different from singer/ songwriters like Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman or their closest contemporary equivalent, Father John Misty, with the major difference that he’s writing from a gay perspective and acutely aware of his position as an outsider. The weirder aspects of “Love Is Magic” seem central to its aesthetic without genuinely adding much to it; the album’s best at its most sincere.

JOHN GRANT | “Love Is Magic” | Partisan Records | Drops Oct. 12 | partisanrecords.com

Updated 12:30 pm, October 11, 2018
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