One of the best songwriters of his generation, John Grant has reinvented himself with every solo album while managing to retain the intimacy and humour that first saw him break through with 2010's 'Queen of Denmark' album.
The hugely-underrated American musician – now based in Iceland – is about to release his fourth album 'Boy from Michigan' this Friday, June 25th.
Whether you're new to his music and need an introduction, or are an ardent fan and want to argue with our choices and omissions, read on...
'Queen of Denmark'
The title track of his solo debut album (he previously fronted the band The Czars, FYI) is undoubtedly Grant's signature song; dripping in dark humour, poking fun at both himself (“I wanted to change the world, but I could not even change my underwear”) and those around him (“I hope you know that all I want from you is sex / To be with someone who looks smashing in athleticwear”), all neatly tied up in a superb piano-led quiet-loud-quiet musical pattern.
Taken from the same album (we could have just listed the entire 'Queen of Denmark' trackist, to be honest), this is one of the most heartbreaking break-up songs you'll ever hear. Grant is a songwriter known for being brutally honest with emotion, and there are multiple sucker punches in this song about vulnerability, self-confidence and love. It's poetry.
Grant has spoken extensively in the past about his difficult childhood and how hard it was to accept himself as a gay man being raised in a strict religious childhood. This song is not only emotionally cathartic but musically goosebump-inducing as he issues a savage takedown of the people who caused him pain, while simultaneously reaching out a hand to pull those who in the same situation through the mire. Stunning.
Like 'Glacier', this was taken from Grant's second album 'Pale Green Ghosts' and is another example of his superb dry lyrical wit, with lines like “I'm usually only waiting for you to stop talking so that I can / Concerning two-way streets, I have to say that I am not a fan” and one of the best singalong choruses of the last decade. All together, now: “I am the greatest motherfucker that you're ever gonna meet...”
'Grey Tickles, Black Pressure'
An album that's often overlooked in favour of 'Queen if Denmark' and 'Pale Green Ghosts', the title track of his third album is a real stunner, dripping in pathos as he navigates the pressures of the modern world and its constant sense of one-up-manship. One of the best songs on an album that's well worth revisiting.
'It Doesn't Matter to Him'
Another track from 'Pale Green Ghosts', this was one of several that featured Sinead O'Connor after the pair struck up a friendship when O'Connor covered the aforementioned 'Queen of Denmark'. It's another tearjerker that sees Grant examine his successful life and career, and realise how none of it matters because “I could be anything, but I could never win his heart again.” And lines like “Vulnerability feels like a cold, wet concrete room lit with fluorescent light (Which, as you know, makes everything look bad)” attest to his magnificence as a songwriter who never loses his sense of humour, even in the darkest moments.
Sometimes, you hear a song and it evokes all sorts of nostalgic images and memories and feelings. We've never visited the Marz sweet shop of John Grant's childhood in Buchanan, Michigan - but we'll never have to to get a sense of the Willy Wonka-esque magic that it holds for him, thanks to this gorgeous song.
'Boy from Michigan'
Speaking of Michigan, that US state forms the basis of much of Grant's new album, which delves deeper into his childhood and teenage years (the latter spent in Colorado) for arguably his most poignant and affecting collection yet. The title track is a twinkling, evocative '80s-inspired synthpop beaut.
'He's Got His Mother's Hips'
Grant's third solo album 'Love is Magic' caught a lot of people off-guard; although he had been venturing further down the 'synthpop' rabbithole with every album, this was his most dance/disco/synth-inspired collection to date. It may take a little more effort to warm to, but songs like this one and the title track are brilliantly funky, experimental pop music that show just how versatile a musician he is.
'Where Dreams Go to Die'
John Grant's finest song? We're constantly fluctuating between multiple songs on this list, but this is definitely up there. That swoonsome, melancholic piano intro that bursts into warmth, life and laugh-out-lyrics on the chorus “Baby, you are where dreams go to die / I regret the day your lovely carcass caught my eye”, it's a skewed love song for the ages.