There’s no way to express this sentiment without sounding slightly cheesy, but really, the power of music never fails to astound me. About a month ago, I, like many other music hacks, was asked to start thinking about my top 10 albums of the year. It’s been an excellent year for music in general, but the problem with that – if you can call it a problem – is trying to decide which excellent album is a little bit more excellent than the others. I hummed-and-hawed for a few weeks about what to make my number one, but even after hours and hours of re-listening, I was struggling to make a decision.
The breakthrough came when I spent the weekend at the Crossing Border festival in The Hague, which I’ve mentioned in a previous post. It was a superb weekend of music, but the icing on the cake was a set by John Grant, the former frontman of The Czars (a band I know very little about). I was vaguely familiar with his album Queen of Denmark, as it came through my letterbox with a big pile of other Bella Union promos when it was released in April. I gave it a quick listen at the time and thought ‘Huh. That sounds quite good’, but predictably, it became engulfed by the constantly growing mountain of cardboard-sleeved discs that causes me to be the bane of my postman’s existence.
Around September, I was having a conversation with a fellow journo about the best albums of the year so far. He was fairly certain that Queen of Denmark would not be bettered. It prompted me to go back and re-listen to it in more depth, and again, I thought it was a really, really good album. Album of the year, though? Didn’t know about that.
Yet, when I walked into a half-full Theatre Royal three or four Fridays ago and sat down on one of their plush velvet seats to watch a big, strapping man sing some of the most funny, tender, witty, sad songs I’ve heard in a long time, something clicked. John Grant’s performance blew me away that night, and on the plane journey home, I listened to the album from start to finish, and it just clicked. There’s no other way to describe it – it was literally like a switch had been turned on. There was a familiarity about the songs that was just reassuring. I literally haven’t stopped listening to it since. I actually genuinely don’t want to listen to anything else. (Unfortunately, work gets in the way, and the Glee Christmas album is one of the discs that has broken my Grant marathon).
Previously, when I’d heard that Grant had recorded the album with Midlake as his backing band (he just plays piano and sings, himself), I think I’d subconsciously filed it under ‘blah’. Y’know, I like some Midlake songs (and the Trials of Van Occupanther album, sure) – but this is Midlake not sounding like Midlake. Although they provide some beautiful musicianship, Grant, obviously and rightly, takes centre stage.
But what makes Queen of Denmark so bloody amazing? Well, without getting too technical, it can be broken down into a few categories. Firstly, there’s the music. The songs are primarily piano and keyboard-based; this is a winner for me, as the piano is one of my favourite instruments. But it’s more than personal preference. It’s the heartbreaking, mesmerising trickle of piano that opens ‘Marz’. It’s the sad, dejected keyboard on ‘It’s Easier‘; it’s the timeless simplicity of ‘Caramel’, and it’s the playful showtune pomp of ‘Silver Platter Club’. When Midlake do come in – like on the sprightly ’70s pop-funk stomp of ‘Chicken Bones‘, or with their gorgeous harmonies (harmonies also feature heavily on this album = win), they’re astoundingly good.
What else? Well, there’s John Grant’s voice. I’m going to check out The Czars when I’ve had my fill of this album, because his voice is a powerful, versatile and moving instrument in itself. Whether he’s plumbing the lower depths on ‘Where Dreams Go to Die’, stretching for airy space on ‘Caramel’, or rocking out on the title track, he makes it sound so easy, so natural.
Finally, there’s probably my favourite aspect of the album, and John Grant’s songwriting in general: his lyrics. I love songwriters than can see the funny side of sad situations (Morrissey, Stephin Merritt, for example), and Grant is a master at this. He’s a witty fucker. Who else could write a lyric about childhood displacement and draw parallels with the films Alien and Bram Stoker’s Dracula?
“And I feel just like Sigourney Weaver
When she had to kill those aliens
And one guy tried to get them back to the earth
And she couldn’t believe her ears”
– Sigourney Weaver
“Baby, you are where dreams go to die
I regret the day your lovely carcass caught my eye”
– Where Dreams Go to Die
“You tell me that my life is based upon a lie
I casually mention that I pissed in your coffee
I hope you know that all I want from you is sex
To be with someone who looks smashing in athleticwear”
– Queen of Denmark
When he’s not being witty, he’s being unbelievably honest. This album is a baring of the soul, in many ways, for Grant; he’s blunt to the point of pain, almost, about his former problems with drug and alcohol abuse, and about his parents’ struggle with his homosexuality. Check out ‘Jesus Hates Faggots‘, if you don’t believe me.
He can also capture the confusion and pain of love and heartbreak in the most succinct manner I’ve heard in years (It’s Easier), and well, I’ve already mentioned Marz, but I love the story behind it (Marz was a sweet shop in the town he grew up in; when he returned to visit it several years ago, the owner gave him a menu that listed all of the sweets he remembered from his childhood. Hence the lyrics, ‘Bittersweet strawberry, marshmallow, butterscotch…”).
But it’s not one thing or another about this album. It’s everything. I’ve fallen head over heels for Queen of Denmark in a way that only happens every two or three years. I think the last time I remember being so consumed by an album was Cathy Davey’s ‘Tales of Silversleeve’ in 2007. It’s not for everybody, maybe – not everyone will ‘get’ his humour, and not everyone will connect with the music, and that’s why I’ve been careful about recommending it to everyone in a sort of evangelical ‘LIKE THIS! I LIKE IT, WHY DON’T YOU?!!’ way. But put simply, as albums go, it’s a rare, rare diamond. And it’s most certainly the best I’ve heard in 2010.
Here’s my Top 10 in full, as published in today’s Irish Times:
1 John Grant Queen of Denmark
2 Villagers Becoming a Jackal
3 Laura Marling I Speak Because I Can
4 Beach House Teen Dream
5 Cathy Davey The Nameless
6 Owen Pallett Heartland
7 Janelle Monáe The ArchAndroid
8 Jónsi Go
9 O Emperor Hither Thither
10 The Drums The Drums