One time vocalist with criminally underrated The Czars John Grant had all but given up on the notion of being a musician before he was convinced by Midlake to get back into the studio. Not content with producing one of the albums of this year themselves (The Courage of Others), Midlake offered their services to Grant as his band. The long shot of which is that this collaboration has thrown up yet another candidate for one of the best long players you’ll hear in 2010.
Not that there’s anything particularly current about the sound of Queen of Denmark – far from it. This is an album that emulates the smooth sounds of the West Coast circa the early 70′s, and with Midlake being so adept at plundering musical history there’s no better band for such a purpose. Grant’s themes of disappointment, heartbreak, relationships, religious bigotry, and, er…Sigourney Weaver are all subjects that transcend time however.
Kicking off with the gentle folk of ‘TC and Honeybear’ Grant deals with heartbreak straight away. Essentially a tale of insecurity, love and loss, it’s a wonderfully warm ballad of epic proportions that throws everything into the mix and never once sounds overbearing.
Flutes flitting around like butterflies? Present and correct.
Otherworldly mourning backing vocals from something that sounds like an angelic choir? They’re over by the fountain.
A massive baritone voice that bursts with emotion over a perfectly executed climax? It’s all right there with Grant’s voice dripping an irresistible warm timbre all over this tale of loss. A perfect opener then, and from here on, Grant and Midlake don’t let up.
‘I Wanna Go To Marz’ is a quirky folk number which is essentially Willy Wonka’s product list coupled with some carefully placed sci-fi imagery. For some reason the mix of the authenticity of folk and the otherworldly imagery inspire a desperate need to watch Silent Running – which can add an extra hour and a half on to the listening time of the album.
‘Where Dreams Goe To Die’ is another tale of sadness awash with sweeping strings, mournful piano, and Grant’s wonderfully damaged vocals. It might start off a little low key, but it soon opens up into an extravagant torch song that Grant grabs by the scruff and fills with emotion.
A quick change of mood finds us with Grant exploring sci-fi inflected folk again, with ELO keyboard sounds invading the acoustic guitars and piano of ‘Sigourney Weaver’. What initially sounds like a brilliant tongue in cheek dissection of Aliens and Dracula quick reveals itself as a finely crafted confessional. What appears to be a jaunty little number, has greater depth upon further examination. It’s a trick that Grant employs again on ‘Chicken Bones’, which takes a profane, frustrated saunter into Gordon Lightfoot’s Sundown, and gives it an uneasy violent edge. If you condensed it into a picture, it’d be a cartoon of Elton John with a knuckle duster.
‘Silver Platter Club’ appears to be an open apology to his parents for not turning out to be how they wanted him to. That it cribs its melodies from a range of sources including Brotherhood of Man, ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ and Carol Bayer Seger’s ‘You’re Moving Out Today’ is not cause for concern as Grant and Midlake turn this crafty swipe at parental expectations into an awesome fuck-you jig.
He mixes folk and sci-fi again with the wonderful ballad of ‘Outer Space’. A mixture of wonder and confusion there’s also a healthy element of humour alongside lines like “you can open up the heavens for me with just one smile.” There’s more than a nod towards Pink Floyd and The Carpenters’ ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft’ here as well, which will keep the owners of the I-Spy “Book of Musical Allusions” happy
On ‘JC Hates Faggots’, Grant ruminates on the bigotry of those who use religious beliefs to attack homosexuals and among the cavalcade of smart melodies and cutting lyrics there’s the confession that he recently considered suicide. Despite the hefty content, it’s a strangely catchy tune that evokes the spirit of Randy Newman and Eels and reveals Grant to be a man of great conviction.
Title track ‘Queen of Denmark’ seems to indicate just how far Grant’s self-esteem had fallen. A soul-baring ballad that deals with a relationship breakdown and possibly a mental breakdown, Grant’s lowly vocals are full of apologies, self-loathing, and loathing in general. Then from out of nowhere, the song grows a pair of balls and lashes out in spectacular fashion. Constantly swinging between moods, it’s a breathtakingly stark and honest depiction of a person dissolving on every level. It’s a fitting closure to a remarkable album that itself is full of emotional turbulence, anger, love and most importantly, melody.
Queen of Denmark is a stunning piece of work and it confirms John Grant as a brilliant lyricist and vocalist. This is an album that deserves a place alongside this year’s best.