Released 19th April 2010. Review originally published 7th June 2010.
When men sit behind pianos it usually goes one of two ways; either they turn into Jamie Cullum-type real assholes, or they become Liberace. On Queen of Denmark John Grant thankfully does neither, instead delivering a debut solo album so intricate, bruised and genuinely heartwarming that it’s practically a revelation.
Grant used to be in a band you’ve almost certainly never heard of called The Czars, but on Queen of Denmark he was helped out by a band of Texans called Midlake, whom you should definitely be aware of even if you at present are not. The classically fatal combination of heaped critical eulogy but a commercial dustbowl, after The Czars messy implosion an emotionally shattered Grant relocated from Denver to New York. There he waited tables, attempted to finish the interpreters degree which he’d originally put on hold to join the band and gigged infrequently. Listless, eventually his torpor was overcome; co-writing with Midlake, whose 2007 debut Trials of Van Occupanther betrayed a debt to the FM sweetness of the American mid-seventies, a new set of songs emerged, also in that mould.
One listen to Queen of Denmark’s often flagellating lyrics leaves little doubt as to Grant’s sexuality, but his love is love, thus the wickedly acerbic charachter he presents on the one hand is balanced by an intricate, bruising self-portrait that haggles with fear, guilt, jealousy and heartbreak as a man who just happens to love other men. Grant, who wrote Queen of Denmark about his suffocating adolescence in hyper conservative Colorado is as much of a product of his environment as any other songwriter, but chooses to be a correspondent from it, like a reporter looking back at footage of a long forgotten trauma.
Comparisons to the self flagellating Rufus Wainwright will be inevitable, but in reality Queen of Denmark is a throwback record in more than just it’s composition. Whilst a latterly drug free Wainwright has learnt to play it a little more straight (sic), Grant writes in shreddingly honest terms about almost everything, but as well as laying himself bare, he’s unafraid to produce irresistible comment on politics, religion and wealth. If in fact he’s a scion of anyone if not in voice but in songwriting philosophy, it’s most surely here Randy Newman. Another casualty of his big mouth and a drawer of consistently unpalatable American archetypes, Newman represents just as much of what his countrymen don’t want to hear. Neither will be winning any Grammy’s soon. Neither will care.
Grant claims to have been influenced most by Patsy Cline and Abba, but despite the dream team resonance that pairing would appear superficially to have, neither’s baggage is much in evidence. Opener TC and Honeybear, complete with it’s sub-operatic harmonies and gentle flute, is joined at the hip with the following I Wanna Go To Marz, both feeling like incidental music for Love Story, Kramer vs. Kramer or some other of those doomed features from the Tab era.
Part of Grant’s skill is in working the levers. As an example after the opening two minutes of the gilded solemnity Where Dreams Go To Die, he’s still willing to throw in a hilarious line as “I regret the day your lovely carcass caught my eye”; This ability to roll off the cuff pithiness right in there like a grenade is one that few other songwriters possess, the most obvious other being Morrissey at his most sardonic.
In matching occasionally soporific arrangements to lyrical bite Grant creates a chassis that allows him to land the really heavy duty blows on targets most deserving. The title JC Hates Faggots could hardly be any less subtle, but in it the author admits to considering suicide after being told in adolescence that he was unnatural, before widening to muse on the hijacking of American Christianity by people whose axe to grind is with everyone from used car salesmen to draft dodgers.
The tirades continue on Silver Platter Club, castigating society’s haves to a Scott Joplin-esque slice of ragtime, but also examining how being male is defined within the context of his country’s relentless media. Eventually you come to the conclusion that in fact it’s not a song about being poor and hating the idle rich, it’s a song about exploitation, just as much of the rich by the rich, a lose-lose situation where everybody’s fucking somebody else.
Having dined out on the chaise-lounge of everything gone wrong, Grant still has time for one visceral look back into the abyss of the Id on the closing title track, his confessional throwing up genius like “When the shit got really, really out of hand/I had it all the way up to my hairline/which keeps receding, like my self-confidence”. As with the rest of the dozen songs which make up Queen of Denmark, it’s happy, sad, tragic and crazed all at the same time, whilst the gratuitous profanity is guaranteed to have keepers of our morality nicely foaming at the mouth.
The end result is one of the most original and brave records of the year, one unlikely to bring Grant anything more than a knee-deep pile of accolades, but little money. Not straight, not gay, but just human, for once here the term suffering for your art is one worn with panache and alacrity.