What with the filthy Ethel Merman joke, the discussion of Frida from Abba's strange hand-clapping technique on a late 70s broadcast of Chiquitita and all the heart-rending songcraft, the interlude where John Grant introduces the musicians shouldn't really linger in the mind tonight after his fine performance ends. But it does.

There are five in the band. Apart from keyboard player Chris Pemberton, who hails from Coventry, Grant has multiple Icelandic names to get through, dense with exotic polysyllables. The singer – a bear of a man who grew up in Colorado – rolls his tongue over them all with obvious relish after the first song, the squelchy, electronic You Don't Have To. "Peturrrrr Halllgrrrrimsssonnnn," he expounds, indicating the guitarist.

Unlike many musicians, who speak grunt and platitude, Grant has four alternative languages – German, Russian, Spanish and French, plus working interests in Swedish and Danish. His continued stay in Iceland, where he recorded his most recent album, Pale Green Ghosts, was predicated on two factors: the presence of GusGus's Birgir Thórarinsson, the album's producer, and Grant's fascination with the language. That album has since entered the UK album charts and has even won warm praise in the Sun – quite a coup for a record that flaunts its verbal erudition (his merch T-shirts bear a definition of the word "callipygian") alongside levels of self-disgust that plot high on the Cobain scale. Its predecessor, Queen of Denmark, was voted Mojo's album of the year in 2010.

Most discussions of Grant's work dwell on the eloquence of his confessionals; on his upbringing (religious), his history of addiction (he's now sober), his depression (now medicated), his sexuality (out), its torments (a lost love called "TC"), and most recently his HIV status (positive). He announced that status publicly at a Meltdown gig last year. His colourful backstory, and the skill of its recounting, continues to impress. A crooned electronic track, Vietnam, compares his ex-lover's silence to both a nuclear bomb and Agent Orange without running the risk of over-dramatising.

One of his finest moments, GMF, finds Grant in the rare position of bigging himself up. "I am the greatest motherfucker that you're ever gonna meet," he sings, his voice sonorous and rich, blaring out of the speakers with barely a need for amplification. That claim could go either way, and the song's mellifluous beauty contrasts markedly with its lacerating self-assessments. Having Sinéad O'Connor providing her backing vocals would have iced the cake tonight but sadly (for us) she did her turn in Dublin.

Grant's songs are generous with detail – who said what to who, where, how and why – giving texture to the ongoing, cataclysmic break-up between Grant and his ex. Specifics, though, when written well, become universals. These are no longer just the gory details of one failed relationship between two men. Grant is selling out major venues because his rage, humour and insight apply to anyone who has ever been dumped by anyone cute and emotionally unavailable. The keynote track on Pale Green Ghosts – its seven-minute closer, Glacier – isn't merely about coming to terms with one's sexuality. It's about dealing with any kind of pain, whose transformative passage Grant likens to a glacier carving out internal valleys, creating "spectacular landscapes".

The words, then, are seriously good. Like a cross between Elliott Smith and Rufus Wainwright, Grant compares well with many of the masters of left-field solipsism. Live, though, his songs expand beyond his propensity for over-thinking things. The music is eloquent too. At the climax of Glacier, Grant just sits on his keyboard stool facing centre stage, nodding away, while the band carry this song about personal geology to its grand conclusion.

The central third of the set, by contrast, is mostly electronic, almost oppressively so. Where older songs, recorded with indie-rock journeymen Midlake, remain tinged with the warmth of soft 70s rock, the newer songs are redolent of the 80s, and more oppressive live than on the album, often allowing themselves a menace at odds with Grant's hot-toddy voice. Ernest Borgnine is almost suffocatingly heavy, the jazzy sax solo of the album replaced by a keyboard squelch and hot red lights. Borgnine is a hero of Grant's, and the song imagines what "Ernie Borgnine would do" in his situation, post-diagnosis. "Not be a faggot," Grant answers himself, in his preamble. Aperçus like these are cut with defensiveness; the need to get the insult in before someone else says it.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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