John Grant: Love Is Magic review – Fun, daft, loaded with funk notions, but it’s not that funky
Love Is Magic
What a career John Grant has etched out for himself. For over a decade he cut an enviable body of work as frontman of tranquil folk-rock band The Czars before leveraging the experience into a solo catalogue of lush orchestral pop, McCartney-style piano ballads, sardonic lyrics, guttural croons and melodies that feel as warm and comforting as a raggedy old blanket.
Now 50 years old, Grant is at the peak of his popularity – one of indie rock’s marquee names and solid live draws. He could hit the summer touring circuit every year, play songs like GMF to huge outdoor crowds, give a couple of quick thumbs-up and pick up his cheques. But Grant’s mind doesn’t dance like that. Instead, he continues to burrow down new sonic rabbit roles, expanding the horizons of his sound. And so now we have fourth album Love is Magic, a wild set of electro-funk jams that targets all you maggot-brains, atomic dogs and superfreaks.
The stylistic direction of the project hasn’t come totally out of the blue. Grant teased out some of his electronic impulses on the 2015 album Grey Tickles, Black Pressure. And, earlier this year, he dropped the little-heard Mr Dynamite, a surrealist joint record with the band Wrangler released under the name Creep Show. Love Is Magic is the continuum of recent experiments, and, like Mr Dynamite, it’s a real mixed bag. Sometimes the album is fun; frequently it’s daft. Every idea doesn’t hit the bullseye, but it’s an album so loaded with ideas you can’t help but marvel at the depths of Grant’s creativity.
There’s one big problem, though: for a record with funk notions, Love Is Magic just isn’t that funky. James Brown capitalised The Funk. Betty Davis capitalised The Funk. Hall & Oates capitalised The Funk. Grant, for all his gifts, just doesn’t come from the same stock. That’s the thing about funk – you either have it or you don’t and you can’t just colour in the numbers. Try performing the bass riff from If You Want Me To Stay 1,000 times. Chances are you’ll still never be funky enough for Sly Stone.
Take Love is Magic’s opener Metamorphosis, one of the album’s shabbiest outfits. The song’s thudding beat lacks style or sophistication, while the whacky voice Grant tunes his vocal chords to sounds like something from a cartoon. At one point he shouts out his nation’s current serpent-in-chief: “Baby’s in the whitest house playing with his toys.” There are plenty of trenchant critiques of Donald Trump being packed into pop songs right now, but this throwaway line in a very silly song feels perfunctory and unsatisfactory.
It’s the title track where Grant makes best use of the vast chest of toys at his disposal
Things solidly improve from there. It doesn’t take an audiophile to notice that Grant is drawing from some of the same sources as Beck’s own freak-out Midnight Vultures – all pulsating R&B, glitchy beats and rousing electronica.
Yet there are many other influences, too. The singer’s wry spoken-word delivery on Diet Gum sparks memories of America’s 1990s alternative canon, such as Nada Surf’s sarcastic hit Popular and anti-folk performer Hamell on Trial. Percolating synthpop ballad Smug C**t, a highlight, draws from the Ultravox end of throwback British new wave. On Touch and Go, one of the more organic, piano-led numbers, Grant evokes the songwriting of the great pop-rock progressive Todd Rundgren.
It’s the title track where Grant makes best use of the vast chest of toys at his disposal. The synths swoon and the drum machines echo like a classic 1980s pop ballad. On Tempest, the beeps ’n’ blips underpin ambient synths before the whole thing ends in a great crescendo of lights and lasers.
Good luck playing songs like Tempest live, by the way. These are tracks that will stress-test casual fans of Grant. But I admire the singer for taking these risks. He’s completely out of step with almost everyone else of his generation right now. Long may he reign. It’s just a shame that Love Is Magic is an album I often admire more than I enjoy.