A great many people will love John Grant’s fourth solo album, and they will not be wrong to do so. They might well be drawn to the idiosyncrasies, and to the way his increasing use of electronics has led him to an album on which the squelch of analogue synths all but drowns out pianos and acoustic guitars (“It’s the sound I’ve always dreamt of,” Grant told Uncut). They might adore the kaleidoscopic nature of the lyrics, which skip from yeast infections to Islamic State to broccoli with cheese sauce in a couple of lines.
Another reading, though, is that this is Grant’s least satisfying album yet.
Metamorphosis, the opener, supports both points of view. At its centre is a breathtaking verse about the death of Grant’s mother, crooned so tenderly you can hear his heart break, in which he faces up to the consequences of his own solipsism: “As I enjoyed distraction / She just slipped away.” It’s sandwiched between two sections of stream-of-consciousness absurdism, though, delivered in the manner of a wacky entertainer – if frantically waggling eyebrows could be voiced, this is the sound they would make – written in the style of a sixth-former who’s just discovered satirical poetry: “Fourteen-year-old boy rapes 80-year-old man / Tickets to the Met, sweetcorn from a can / Baby’s in the Whitest House playing with his toys / Earthquakes, forest fires, Hot Brazilian Boys!!!” (The exclamation marks come from the official lyric sheet.) Smug Cunt goes further, a song for those who feel you can never be too obvious, and again the touch of the teenage poet hangs over it: “All the girls think you’re a stud / Even though your hands are covered in blood.”
Of course, there are moments so barbed you can feel the blood being drawn – twice they are those when Grant is looking back in bitterness to his teens. Tempest, where the singer retreats into a world of Atari games to escape a world of judgment, and the propulsive electro-disco of Preppy Boy, apparently about his high-school tormentors, but which torments them back with sly nods and winks. Best of all, though, are two gorgeous ballads, in which Grant appears to mourn the relationship that caused him to move to Iceland: the title track and Is He Strange are wondrous, and Grant’s voice becomes burnished and woody. There’s no reaching for effect, just emotion anyone could feel.