John Grant – ‘Boy From Michigan’ review: visions of an American nightmare

The electro-pop artist's latest punctuates intense and dark examinations of contemporary masculinity with moments of breathtaking beauty

‘Boy From Michigan’ opens with a psychedelic buzz of synths, then settles into a slick smooth jazz groove. John Grant begins the title track with a collage of small-town American vignettes: his mother sewing clothes; visits to apple farms; summer trips to the park. There’s a hint of simmering menace to it all – he recalls the terror of hearing about a neighbour’s narrow escape from a car crash – but it’s all bathed in the mellow haze of nostalgia.

Then, with jarring abruptness, the veneer of sentimental charm is totally stripped away, and a seething skeletal evil is laid bare: “Beware, when you go out there / they’ll eat you alive if you don’t care […] The American Dream can cause scarring / and some nasty bruising.”

Later comes ‘The Rusty Bull’, where Grant recalls a 20-foot sculpture that filled him with terror as a boy. Any chinks of light have disappeared from the music, now a smothering wall of synths. He paints the bull as a manifestation of an ancient, Lovecraftian terror – most can’t remember how it even got there. “And he visits me, while I lie in my bed. He says: ‘Your daddy can’t undo what’s done” / And 40 years later I’m still trying to run.’”

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Much of the album is in Grant’s established style: deep, unflinching confessionals, mostly from his youth in Michigan and Colorado. Often they concern the homosexuality he repressed until his mid-20s. ‘The Cruise Room’ touchingly recounts his panic at a proposition from a male friend for which he was mentally unprepared; ‘Mike And Julie’ concerns the first man he had sex with, a long-term friend from his strict Methodist church, and their years of denial about what took place between them. On ‘Daisy Star’ he remembers the gruesome images of death that the 1971 horror film See No Evil etched permanently on his young mind.

What sets ‘Boy From Michigan’ apart from Grant’s previous four solo albums, however, is the way in which he widens his scope, finding parallels between his own sadness and horror with that of America itself. The chilling rusty bull goes hand in hand with images of a run down five and dime store, so stale that “it smells like something set apart from time.” It’s no surprise that the album was recorded and written as the twin beasts of coronavirus and the 2020 election were filling him with dread from afar – he fled America for Iceland a decade ago.

On ‘The Only Baby’, Grant draws eviscerating connections between America’s history of slavery and its destruction of Indigenous communities with modern racism, healthcare inequality, drug epidemics and hyper capitalism. Then he argues that the birth of “That thing in the White House” was simply that history’s inevitable end product. “That’s the only baby that bitch could have,” he sings.

In terms of subject matter, ‘Boy From Michigan’ is among the heaviest albums of Grant’s career – a discography that’s hardly lacking in weight – yet it’s never remotely stifling. At every corner there’s a witty aside, a gleefully weird vocal effect, a gorgeous descriptive phrase or a moment of biting tenderness: “Patsy Cline on the juke box and I don’t wanna hear nothing else / We leave the world outside and the fear begins to melt,” he sings on ‘The Cruise Room’.

Instrumentally, too, ‘Boy From Michigan’ is often sublime. You can feel producer Cate Le Bon’s influence in the dream-pop shimmer of ‘County Fair’ and the little flourishes of clarinet that make ‘The Cruise Room’ so tender. Its opulence can even make up for the moments where Grant, ever the maximalist, drifts too far from his central theme. ‘Rhetorical Figure’, a frenetic, Devo-ish track where Grant links good grammar and sex appeal – “I have always been an assonance man” – feels entirely at odds with the rest of the record, and yet is so delightfully strange that it would be a shame not to include it.

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When everything does all click into place, ‘Boy From Michigan’ can be completely transfixing, not least at its gorgeous conclusion, ‘Billy’, where Grant delivers a deeply poignant message to a former lover and sums up the root cause of the evil that’s been plaguing the record: “the cult of masculinity”. Once revealed it’s everywhere you see, on the aggressively phallic imagery he uses to describe American economy worship on ‘Your Portfolio’, his shame at being too small to use the rides on ‘County Fair’, and his desperate avoidance of confronting his sexuality on ‘Mike & Julie’ and ‘The Cruise Room’.

As Grant sings on the ‘Boy From Michigan’’s title track: “The American Dream is not for weak, soft-hearted fools”. Yet by the end of the record he’s dissected that toxic old institution with the wit, eloquence and beautiful musicianship. It’s an album that does not only confronts the cult of masculinity and its endless tentacles, but ultimately overcomes it.

Details:

Release date: June 25

Record label: Bella Union

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