Denver's John Grant sang with a band called the Czars before moving to New York where he supported Flaming Lips and Midlake, becoming friends with both bands. Midlake then worked with Grant on this, his debut album - a sublime collaboration featuring Grant's unique vocal style and piano-playing skills with Midlake's backing.
Though a number of dedicated followers are already aware of Grant's vocal talent, Queen of Denmark now gives more listeners the chance to appreciate his music.
John Grant had almost given up on music until he met Midlake. The Texan folk-rockers saw the disillusioned former frontman of The Czars live, fell in love with his burnished baritone and elegantly sad songs, invited him on tour and then persuaded Grant to make a solo album at their own Denton studio. Fans of confessional singer-songwriters owe Midlake a vote of thanks, because Queen of Denmark is one of the most deeply satisfying debut albums of recent times.
A key example of the current 1970s obsession among American musicians, Queen of Denmark is a literate and poetic album about being a perennial outsider. Grant grew up gay and alienated from his religious family in Kalamazoo, Michigan and Denver, Colorado, struggled with the overlooked Czars, hid his pain in addictions to booze and drugs, and contemplated suicide. Yet his debut eschews self-pity and tortured angst for wry snipes at old lovers and the straight world, sci-fi metaphors and soaring testimonies to the impossibility of perfect love. His rich, effortless voice has a built-in smile which contrasts beautifully with Midlake’s elegantly miserable blend of acoustic folk, orchestral classicism and the occasional eerie synth.
An ex-lover called Charlie inspires three of the highlights – opener TC and Honeybear is an epic essay in bittersweet loss and male insecurity; Where Dreams Go to Die shows off Grant’s flair for the melodramatic yet restrained love song; and Caramel is a romantic ballad of minor-key majesty. Elsewhere, I Wanna Go to Marz, Chicken Bones and the wonderful Sigourney Weaver excavate key moments in Grant’s past over music that recalls relatively obscure 70s singer-songwriters: Clifford T. Ward, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Jackson Browne and Neil Sedaka haunt this gorgeous sound far more than, say, Elton John or Leonard Cohen.
But comparisons are difficult here. Queen of Denmark transcends the sum of its influences by concentrating on the irresistible appeal of sad yet optimistic love songs, classy arrangements and a dark and handsome croon. Midlake’s only mistake is making Grant’s startling debut better than their own records. --Garry Mulholland
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