Album Review: John Grant – Love Is Magic

There are few artists more interesting and charming artists out there than John Grant. He is the teddy bear that everyone wants to hug; the bearded genius whose passion for music and eloquence is quite disarming; a captivating and warm human who you cannot help but adore.

john grant - love is magic artwork

There is a division between the man and the music, like many artists out there. Through song, you get a weirder, different side to Grant and a whole new world. Grant took a five-year break from music following the disbandment of his first band, The Czars. The last album from The Czars – 2005’s Sorry I Made You Cry – was a stunner but, if anything, John Grant’s debut solo record, Queen of Denmark, was even more profound. In the five years after The Czars split, Grant was waiting tables and struggling with alcohol abuse, he sung about near-suicidal states but presented something beautiful, engaging and stunning. 2013’s Pale Green Ghosts was a huge critical success and it seemed, naturally, people were on-board with Grant’s new path.

I got involved with Grant when 2015’s Grey Tickles, Black Pressure came out. The title derived from the raw translation of two phrases from the Icelandic and Turkish languages – ‘grey tickles’ is about approaching middle-age whilst ‘black pressure’ is from the Turkish for ‘nightmare’. That record was angrier and moodier than his previous output and, whilst still quite light in places, it was a much more personal, subversive and beguiling listen – Grant admitted he loved working on Grey Tickles, Black Pressure more than his previous records. This brings us to the here and now: 2018’s John Grant has, again, reinvented himself and appears less put-out and depressive. Of course, he is a complex man but I feel Love Is Magic is a genuine statement – many might see it as cynical and ironic.

Exactly three years since the release of his last solo LP, Love Is Magic is another stunning triumph from John Grant. The man himself claims every record he makes is an amalgamation of himself and the more that he records, the more he trusts himself. Produced by Grant (with Benge and Paul Alexander) and engineered by Benge in a Cornish studio, it seems like Grant has created a record that is true to him and how he always wanted to sound or what he wanted to talk about. Despite a more positive-sounding record and a refreshed spirit, there is a myriad of emotions that range from humorous characters to vivid encounters; darker days and triumphant statements – just the sort of fascinating and piping-hot banquet you’d expect from Grant! Addiction and health play a role as does love and relationships…

‘Metamorphosis’ is a perfect opener that starts with robot-like electronics and juddering synths. You are instantly transported to somewhere futuristic and are lost in a world of metal and visions of machines taking over. Gravy, acid and smilers are all visions twisted inside this robot-shuffling soundtrack that brings in some glistening elements and a truly quirky vocal from Grant. It is hard to say what inspires the song because, within a few breaths, the hero is talking about yeast infections and pondering who created ISIS. You get thrown these skewed, oblique images and thoughts, all floating in this futuristic wave that swims in the brain and makes you imagine. The song soon transforms from this manic and curious thing to a more mellow and settled thing. It seems like the metamorphosis itself is occurring and Grant is calming and considering things more deeply. It is an interesting number that sees Grant ponder why he was so unhappy and where he is heading. Maybe that is a nod to his previous music or a reaction to his older self – perhaps he is a more settled and content man who wonders why he was so angry?

The single, ‘Love Is Magic’, is another twist. You get some big beats and voluminous synths that project a more open and impassioned grin, altogether less tense and frantic than the opening track. Grant poses questions – to an unnamed hero or himself? – revolving around passive-aggression, medication and, wonderfully, Sade playing on the radio. I get the impression Grant is talking about a darker, less happy version of himself and tragic depths. Love, it is said, is magic, whether we “like it or not”, and not tragic; we just need to walk through that open door and embrace it! It is a wonderful song and proof Love Is Magic is a multi-layered and complex thing. From the investigations of love’s complexities and an ill-fated figure blocking the beauty of that sensation, ‘Tempest’ offers something new.

The track opens with racing and tiptoeing electronics that get your head darting and the brain engaged. Like most of the songs on the album, it is over five minutes but does not seem too heavy and dragging. Whilst not one of the most memorable cuts from the LP, ‘Tempest’ is more notable because of its musical dexterity and production sound rather than the lyrics. Maybe it will take a few more spins but I was not as engrossed here than I was at other parts of the record. Maybe the vocal is too conventional or the lyrics are not quite as image-provoking. ‘Tempest’ would be a fantastic song by anyone else’s standards but is a bit muted by Grant’s exceptional benchmark.

‘Preppy Boy’ and ‘Smug Cunt’ are as imaginative and interesting as their titles suggest! The former is all elastic and accelerated, a blend of sensual and dancing. It is a great brew that gets you moving and demonstrates Grant’s vast affinity regarding composition and mood. The hero is back to his strident best as he looks at a figure who wants to be the boss and, as far as he is concerned, is a bit flawed. The song’s eponymous figure is being wooed by Grant, our man is unemployed and spending his time in need of distraction and entertainment. ‘Smug Cunt’ is not the kind of song you’d expect to hear from Coldplay or Cliff Richard. It is not as aggressive and confrontational as the title suggests but it certainly has teeth and panache. From its enticing electronic start, Grant looks at someone who is bathed in cologne and obsessed by their own chest hair. Grant has little time for him and his voice is much more concentrated, stern and unhappy – the chorus, despite the explicit language, is amusing and quite uplifting!

‘He’s Got His Mother’s Hips’ is already out there and another firecracker. Like ‘Love Is Magic’, it is a natural standout that instantly sees Grant pondering, guessing and setting to work. It is another quirky-as-hell song that boasts meowing synths and Grant at his most alluring, exciting and seductive best. Whoever the song’s hero is, he is strutting into town and has these rather cute and refined hips. Grant takes great pleasure in assessing the man and trying to get to the bottom of him. The twisted and contorted orgasmic sounds from Grant are both funny and eccentric, making one of the highlights of the album.

‘Is He Strange’ and ‘Touch and Go’ are other highlights of Love Is Magic. The former sees Grant at his most vocally potent and lyrically imaginative. You are transported into this song that gets into the soul and will be one of those songs you repeat time and time again. Although the composition is not as brash as one would hope, Grant reigns supreme with a fantastic performance. The piano on the track is rich, romantic and hugely unexpected – a nice touch that breaks (briefly) away from the synths and beats. ‘Touch and Go’ is a great closer where, again, the piano makes a big impact. It melts with electronics and creates this dichotomy, one that gets the blood racing and the imagination primed. It is another fine performance from Grant and a more composed and straight-headed song – compare that to the frantic and distorted opening of ‘Metamorphosis’!

Some of the songs on Love Is Magic do go on a bit too long and quite a few are around the six/seven-minute mark. Even with Grant’s exceptional talent and variation, a few of the songs could have done with a quick trim. That said, there is more than enough on Love Is Magic to adore and, to me, it is Grant’s most interesting, rounded and nuanced work. You become more invested and involved with the album the more you listen and, perhaps, this is Grant moving away from tight and focused work: an album that is more sprawling, artistic and expansive. It is almost impossible to get your head around all the images, colours and quotes Grant throws into the pot. In a year that has seen some truly remarkable and world-class albums, Love Is Magic truly ranks alongside them. If, as Grant says, love is magic then it seems this perennial and much-loved wizard is the one making it so. There are moments of darkness and excess on the album but it the optimistic, cheekiness and humour that shines through brightest. Not an album for a casual listener or those wanting something simple, Love Is Magic is a treasure for those who love their music deep, extraordinarily vivid and utterly fantastic.