John Grant and the Absurdity of Metamorphosis

John Grant has always been a musician good with contradictions. On “Love is Magic”, he pushes this theme to its extremes and seems to come to terms with his own holism. This is his most explicit album, in that it combines so many of the opposing features of his much and works them into a, sometimes disjointed, but nevertheless fully convincing whole for the first time in his career. This is the most evident on Metamorphosis, the albums’ opener, and one of the best tracks of the year. The song lays this dichotomy bare, beginning with a crunchy 8-Bit stomp and listing disparate things on Grant’s mind in his trademark caustic, childlike manner. The first third of the song culminates in the following stretch of lyrics, which gives you a fair sense of Grant’s new depths of ridiculousness.

Yeast infections, synthesisers,

Demi-semi-quavers,

Who created ISIS?

Emotional blackmail,

(she knows what I mean)

Broccoli with cheese sauce,

How long you’ve been clean”

However after this point, the song transitions into a heartfelt and bruised segue exploring Grant’s feelings (or lack thereof) at his mother’s passing. This is no kids stuff, and Grant is not fucking around. It’s as sincere as the preceding lyrics weren’t, and it jars hard.

They took her in an ambulance,

And that is where she died,

And still until up to this very day,

I don’t think I have cried”

On the one hand, this scans as insensitive, and even for Grant’s tendency to use the song as a confessional, more than a little overt. The fact that the song is literally different, stitched right until the middle of what’s come before, gives the listener pause, and whilst on the first couple of spins it takes some getting used to, as a statement of where Grant is at, it works perfectly.

Few musicians have ever approached their albums so explicitly as an emotional document, or testimonial; perhaps only Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart comes close. Yet whereas before Grant’s songs could be sorted into categories, the sincere (Glacier, Disappointing, Queen of Denmark), the funny (You and Him, Sensitive New Age Guy, Where Dreams Go To Die), and both (Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, Outer Space, Black Belt), on Metamorphosis Grant takes those contradictions and pushes them to their furthest limits.

It’s akin to a confrontation, with Grant saying ‘I contain multitudes, and you can take me or leave me’. If this ends up taking the form of heartbreak and life-defining loss next to free-associative banality, then so be it.

However, this approach asks a question that’s much bigger than Grant, concerning the constitutive elements of a life, and how utterly absurd it can sometimes be. On a given day we might find out we have cancer, but later we still will need to think about what to have for dinner. On the same day we get married, we might still check the news. As chronicled in Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern’s Shut Up and Play The Hits, the morning after James Murphy ended LCD Soundsystem he still had to get up and walk the dog.

We are not, and never, allowed the privilege of knowing how and when to demarcate the mundane and the noteworthy, and throughout most of our lives they sit awkwardly next to one another, rubbing shoulders. It’s one of the key aspects of being human, the lack of control we have over the when and where of things. Life is constantly in flux, and we move from moment to moment with little to no control over what those moments are going to be. We are constantly undergoing a metamorphosis of the self, and change is a part and parcel of living. Sometimes it’s scary, sometimes it’s fun, but it’s unavoidable and we have to find a way of coping with it one way or another.

In Metamorphosis, Grant seems to have found his answer for, or a way of living with, this bizarre human trait, and that is to just throw himself in at the deep end and accept life for the totality of its absurdity. It might seem disingenuous, placing such incredibly disparate elements next to one another, but it is honest, and true, and those are qualities that nobody would deny Grant has in spades.

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, S/T (2009)

I am not a difficult man to please, on the whole. But once, when I and my friends were looking around for houses to inhabit, we found that none were quite right. There’d be a promise of cheap rent, or a nice location, or a good space to cost ratio, but something would just be off. We eventually settled on the least “off” house of the bunch, but I remember that period as being one of pure indecision, as none of the houses we looked at, despite initially appearing to be okay, fit the bill.

This is roughly how I felt listening to “The Pains of Being Pure At Heart”‘s first, self-titled album. Everything was all there; lashings of shoegaze fuzz, syrupy chords, hooks of the kind Weezer stopped putting out in 1994, and melancholy tweeisms that wouldn’t be out of place in a Belle and Sebastian song. All the elements for my kind of thing were there… But in this instance, all I could see were the seams. This album is a useless composite.

It’s a real shame. Opener, “Contender”, sets things off with a splash of feedback , a little bit of drum machine wizardry, and some “Loveless” style guitars, before Kip Berman’s vocals trip through a tale of misplaced youth; “you traded books for film/you traded films for time/now that you’ve got none” is a lovely lyric and there’s a plainspoken quality to it that’s quite endearing. It’s nothing special, but it’s not a bad way to spend two and a half minutes. It could signal better things to come, or make sense as part of a wider whole.

Then second track, “Come Saturday” continues with a splash of feedback, a bit of drum machine wizardry, and… Yeah. For the remaining half hour of this disc, track after track rushes by with little nuance or variation. There are bright spots; the aforementioned opener, for one, and the 80’s jangle and sheen of “A Teenager In Love”, and the sweep of closer “Gentle Sons” (which is a cruel track, breaking the funk of the previous songs but at the least useful moment). However, these are rare blips of activity on the heartbeat monitor of this comatose, inert album.

There is no sense of urgency, or cohesion, no flow or sweep to the whole thing that makes you feel like you’re listening to an album. It’s just a dump of very similar-sounding songs, strung together in a fairly uninspired way.

It’s a shame, because in theory this is right up my alley. I also don’t go out of my way to listen to music that I know doesn’t appeal to me (hence why all my previous reviews have been positive). But here I was all set to enjoy this thing… And it carried nothing for me. It’s just a load of recycled bits from bands I like more. I’d recommend it to people with a similar taste to mine, but sadly I found nothing here to like.

Battles, “Mirrored” (2007)

Opening with a pulsing snare and what sounds like the bottom of a tin can being tapped mercilessly with a drumstick, introducing a whistle, and then notes that could either be coming from a guitar or a keyboard, the aptly titled “Race: In” sets “Mirrored”, Battles’ first full-length, off like a line of flame slowly making its way to a truck full of TNT. It’s all there; the propulsive riffs, the heavy use of repetition, the interplay of instruments like gears rotating inside a child’s kaleidoscope.

This is a supremely confident and energetic album, at once cool and detached and yet also bleeding from what is obviously the work of four committed musicians, Dave Konopka (bass, guitar and effects), John Stanier (drums), Ian Williams (keyboard, guitar), and Tyondai Braxton (guitar, keyboards, vocals). Listening to this disc’s sheer craft, it is no surprise that most of these guys have played in bands long before forming Battles, and in a sense the four represent a low-key super-group. However instead of talented male guitarists butting heads, we get a sense of cohesion that carries you through all 51 minutes of this superb, unforgettable record.

It undulates and oscillates; it moves forward both with a supple, sublime grace, and the exquisite logic of a military operation; it is both muscular and bulky, and yet also slinky and lithe; it is a diminutive box car secretly packing the power of a thousand galloping horses churning the shore into foam; it is a muscle car chiseled out of bits of The Rock that doesn’t make a sound when it goes from 0-60. Aggression and comfort, machine and organism, often in the space of the same song.

And what songs! “Atlas”, Battles’ biggest hit from the album has a pulse that gets yours racing, with chipmunked vocals and crunchy licks akin to crowd-surfing. Some tracks, such as “Ddiamondd” and “Leyendecker” are nimble exercises that resemble more conventional songs if only because the vocals are pushed to the fore; others, like “Tonto” and “Bad Trails” are expansive, noodling efforts that push themselves to the limits that these four guys have set for themselves, setting their own tempo, building to rushing crescendos that leave you aghast. “Tij” pushes forward and forward, bringing an unfettered momentum that you don’t think can pay off (it can, though, obviously).

Throughout, the instruments vary in tone and modulation. The guitars sometimes sounding crisp and clean, at other points sounding like a prog improvisation. The drumming switches between drill-like hits of hardcore hammering, at others gilded and effortless. And the vocals ice the thing like a cake, high-pitched but never irritating, human and yet inhuman. You can recognise the shape of the words, but not their contours and precisions.

Then there’s “Rainbow”, a cataclysmic composition of precision and beauty that begins with the tap of a drum, a skittish bassline, and atonal guitar backdrops, that expands outwards and onwards, packing in enough bombast to give you weapons-grade tinnitus, before dipping into an ambient interlude and then… a vocal cue that sounds like a God intervening in the affairs of humans by splitting a mountain in two. It’s one of the most chilling, and awe-inspiring moments in music I’ve heard this year (and when you look up the hard-to-parse lyrics, and realise that the song is basically commenting on itself, you think… Yes, of course).

I realise that I’ve described all of these tracks in roughly the same way, in that they’re working towards something; indeed, the whole album feels like it’s working towards something. This disc is absolutely fixated on payoffs, whether it’s the aforementioned vocal break of “Rainbow”, the throwback of the last track, “Race: Out”, or the final two minutes of “Tij”, which explodes like wrought-iron gates being split apart by white-heat. This is a deeply rewarding disc that, in 2007 (what a year for music) sought out new boundaries for music in this digital millennium, and offered them up to us on a gilded plate.

It’s a tricky album to find footing on, given the constantly shifting tectonic plates that constitute its eleven tracks. But when you can navigate it’s rocky terrain, you feel like an ant amongst the mountaintops. It’s a hell of a payoff.