The best albums of 2013: No 2 – Pale Green Ghosts by John Grant

John Grant changed his sound for his second album, but the sense of insight into his tortured soul remained

Pale Green Ghosts sticks out like a strange sore thumb. For starters, there's the bearded, middle-aged man staring from its cover, the grained wood of a cafe encasing him like a coffin. Then there's the record's mishmash of sounds. Here, minimalist beats meet John Barry strings and stark 80s synths mix with high melodrama – then you add lyrics about heartbreak and homosexuality, tons of swearing and black humour, and a voice to melt the bones. No other record this year sounds within an inch of it.

No other record wears its heart on its sleeve so prominently, either – but John Grant's recent history reveals he had a lot of heart to wear. From 1994 until 2005, he led the Colorado alt-rock group the Czars, during which time his mother died of cancer and he became addicted to both alcohol and drugs. Although he was clean by the time of his 2010 Midlake-produced solo debut, Queen of Denmark, the broken relationship that album dissected continued to plague him. Then, a year later, he found out he was HIV-positive.

Not many people would respond to such events by digging deeper into their broiling pit of demons, but Grant did. He also moved on sonically, from the lush, early Bee Gees sounds of his debut to the gothic, electronic pulse of his 80s adolescence. The stunning way he forged together this mix of ideas and styles has surely helped him into this top 10, but essentially, there are two John Grants on this album. The first has a brooding Twin Peaks presence, haunting the airwaves. The second is a filthy old lag licking your cheek with his barbed tongue.

The title track introduces the former. As jagged synth rhythms slowly gain power, this man drives down an interstate surrounded by "pale green ghosts": literally the trees lining the highway, metaphorically the countless reminders of the past. In Vietnam, Grant compares the silence of his ex to "a weapon … a nuclear bomb … Agent Orange", while Why Don't You Love Me Any More features a line that cuts hard in its honesty: "I am ashamed 'cause I don't know myself right now/ And I am 43." The acknowledgment makes the top 20 success of Pale Green Ghosts particularly refreshing (it reached No 16 in March).

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Then comes the filth. It's delivered cleverly and wryly, like Morrissey did in his prime, only with candour. Blackbelt rhymes "semantics" and "antics" as it struts and it slinks, and refers to its subject as "callypygian" (having well-rounded buttocks). GMF comes across as a tender ballad before the acronym in its title reveals its true meaning (Grant sings "greatest motherfucker" like he's crooning to a baby). Sensitive New Age Guy is James Murphy catnip, with a dirty wiggle in its pants. This record brings life out of the dark stuff, and feels celebratory for it.

The black humour throughout is what gives Pale Green Ghosts its soul, too, even when the album reaches Glacier, its heart-crushing climax. An epic song about Grant coming to terms with his homosexuality in the full, angry glare of homophobia, its chorus touchingly mixes shadows and light. "This pain it is a glacier moving through you," it goes, "carving out deep valleys/ And creating spectacular landscapes/ And nourishing the ground/ With precious minerals and other stuff." The humility with which this image ends says everything about its maker: a middle-aged man displaying his darkest moments in public, for the greater good of himself, and of others. This sits in sharp contrast to stars using their lives like shiny marketing tools in 2013. How brilliant it is for this to be such a beloved record this year. And what spectacular landscapes John Grant paints.

• Cast your vote for the best album of 2013


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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