John Grant’s own theory is that with each record that he releases, he closes the gap further between how it sounds in his head and what he ends up with in the studio. If his 2010 solo debut ‘Queen of Denmark’ saw him truly finding his voice not just as an artist but as a gay man finally emerging out the other side of a lifelong battle with drugs and alcohol, then subsequent releases, you would reason, should provide an increasingly honest portrait of his personal life and be more and more faithful to the sounds that excite him.
On the latter front, the trend has been clear. Fuelled in part by his ongoing collaborations with Icelandic artists in his adopted hometown of Reykjavik, Grant has continued to embrace electronica; 2013’s ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ was a darkly comic synth pop affair wracked with nervous energy, and his last full-length, ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’, sounded somewhere closer to space rock, with dashes of ’80s weirdness throughout. That it charted in the top five in the UK suggests that his embrace of electro has not adversely affected his commercial appeal.
It’s a good job as well, because ‘Love Is Magic’ is comfortably his most pointedly computerised full-length yet, and probably his most experimental, too. Opener ‘Metamorphosis’ sets the tone and serves as a sharp rebuke to anybody who harboured suspicions that Grant’s tour with Elbow earlier this year might have encouraged him to return to ‘Queen of Denmark’’s soft rock stylings; over a thumping beat and a backdrop of scattered video game sound effects, he delivers lyrics that are absurdist even by his standards, with an equally eccentric intonation.
It’s a challenging opening, and it isn’t the only moment on the album that reminds you how thin the line can be between Grant’s unquestionably unique voice as a songwriter and his penchant for being strange for strangeness’ sake. ‘Smug Cunt’ bears a striking sonic resemblance to LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Black Screen’, but lacks that track’s emotional heft. A similar comparison surfaces on ‘Diet Gum’, on which Grant co-opts James Murphy’s conversational style; it’s indulgent, but the track itself at least is irresistibly groovy. It’s those moments that hit hardest on ‘Love Is Magic’; ‘Preppy Boy’ is all polished funk, whilst ‘He’s Got His Mother’s Hips’ is an exercise in studied disco cool.
Those tracks help break up the glacial pace of the album’s spacier songs, of which the title track, a gentle salute to unconditional love, is the highlight; they’re all handsomely produced, but by the record’s close, the phrase ‘much of a muchness’ is springing to mind. The affecting final song, ‘Touch and Go’, is the nearest thing ‘Love Is Magic’ has to a piano ballad and reminds you how startlingly effective a songwriter Grant is when he pares things back slightly; it’s an album littered with both moments of brilliance and points at which he would have been well-served to rein himself in a little bit.