I fully admit that "Pale Green Ghosts" was a bit of a shock when I first heard it. Having truly loved "Queen Of Denmark", I then delved back into John's past work to discover all of The Czars' albums and in the space of just a couple of years went from not really knowing about John Grant to being a huge fan of his work. It's actually only because of my respect for him and the fact that one track, in particular, "Glacier" struck me as a work of genius did I play this album more than once because, I have to be honest, when I listened to it for the very first time, I really disliked it. I'm not a fan of modern electronica (although it you're talking about late seventies and eighties electronic music, I'm rather partial) and much of the album grated. However, I persevered, started to enjoy a few more tracks, went to see John in concert in Cambridge and then, as if by magic, the next time I listened to it, this intricate jigsaw of an album really came together and I was able to thoroughly enjoy the whole album from start to finish, particularly enjoying the textures and dynamics of this unusual piece of work. There are hints of the beautiful big balladry of "Queen Of Denmark", but those who wanted an exact replica of that magnificent album and aren't open to something quite different and adventurous from Grant are possibly going be disappointed by at least half of the tracks here. You really do have to widen your horizons a little or have a penchant for the sort of music he has embraced here to enjoy this release, but for those who are able to embrace the changes or who choose to listen to electronica anyway, this album has so much to offer and each repeat playback rewards the listener with a greater return.
Album opener and title-track "Pale Green Ghosts" (named after the olive trees adorning the roadside near Grant's home in Colorado) still isn't one I have warmed to fully and proves to be a low-key start to the album, although it is most definitely a bold electronic statement that this project is something completely different to his solo breakthrough. The excellent "Black Belt" has robotic rhythms and some bitchy, pithy lyrics that match the cold, detached feel of the song perfectly and the slightly bitter but undeniably likeable, self-promoting yet self-deprecating "GMF" is the first track, musically, on "Pale Green Ghosts" that could have comfortably fit on this album's predecessor. "Vietnam", the sound of a man battling against his (ex?) partner's unforgiving silence, has a musically hollow verse but the sumptuously melodic chorus, augmented by soothing strings, is like aural honey, sweet, soothing and completely contradictory to the pain expressed in the lyrics. The heartbreakingly beautiful "It Doesn't Matter To Him" sees John pouring his sadness and frustration out into some gentle, dignified musings that anybody who has been involved in a painful break-up will understand and empathise with. The instrumental epilogue of the track is dreamy and gorgeous; an exquisite end to an emotive piece. "Why Don't You Love Me Anymore" is less likeable, however, and is quite a bleak, angry synth-laden track that covers the same ground as the previous song, but with a little less restraint.
"You Don't Have To", with its slightly eighties sound simple synthesiser motif, is a wistful, tender reminiscence about a lost relationship with some amusingly biting, honest lyrics, whereas "Sensitive New Age Guy" is an up-tempo slice of electronica which, although has some interesting synth touches, is a bit less enjoyable than most of the other tracks. The sonically bleak "Ernest Borgnine" isn't really to my taste, either, but the superb "I Hate This Town" (with a chorus almost borrowed from ABBA's "Chiquitita", according to Grant) truly raises the bar once more. It is almost as if the very best was saved for last on "Pale Green Ghosts", as the last composition, "Glacier", an intelligent, fierce rebuttal of homophobic slander and hatred is truly magnificent, featuring a sublime vocal performance by John and a classically-tinged piano and strings climax that is both beautiful and passionate in equal measure. Even if a lot of the album isn't to your taste because of the electronic content, I would defy anyone who enjoyed "Queen Of Denmark" to listen to "Glacier" and not be blown away; it's a moment of sheer genius on a creative, eclectic album that has so many more excellent tracks than not. It's the track that forced me to re-listen to the album time and time again and to turn an, at first, uncomfortable listening experience into something that is now one of my favourite records of 2013. I imagine "Pale Green Ghosts" isn't for everybody and it very nearly wasn't for me, but a willingness to absorb the new direction and a little perseverance could mean that it slowly turns into one of your favourites of the year too.