John Grant spent his 50th birthday riding “the world’s nastiest rollercoasters” in Ohio, safely replacing the extreme highs and depressive crashes he once got from class A drugs and having sex with HIV-positive men, before announcing he’d tested positive himself on stage in 2012.
His brilliant fourth album Love Is Magic takes listeners on a similar thrill ride, dominated by swirling loops of grand, romantic melody, sly twists of sardonic wit and heart-stopping drops of sheer honesty.
It opens with the disorienting judder of “Metamorphosis”: “Yeast infection/ Synthesiser/ Demisemiquavers/ Who created Isis?” Grant sounds like a manic, unfiltered Billy Joel as he raps out the random contents of his head over the squelch and squirm of vintage synths, referencing Devo, Jean-Michel Jarre and even Pink Floyd.
The whole album was engineered by electronic experimentalist, Benge (aka Ben Edwards) at his Cornish studio and they clearly had enormous fun twiddling the knobs of their analogue synths. which provide the perfect backdrop to Grant’s writhing layers of lyrical compassion, revulsion, nostalgia, despair, erudition and smut.
You can hear the restless sensory-seeking of the reformed addict in the album’s unceasing delivery of weird and wonderful new retro sci-fi sounds that I found myself categorising as “slugs in space”. When the lumpy squidges of “Metamorphosis”’ opening bars gives way to a slow, dreamy passage, I’m repeatedly reminded of that incredible moment in David Attenborough’s Life in the Undergrowth, when the pair of mating Leopard Slugs drop from their branch and corkscrew with impossibly hypnotic grace on a translucent rope of mucus.
Slimier than any slug, Donald Trump gets a tongue lashing on “Smug C***” (“just a little boy/ masturbating with expensive toys“), while Grant himself becomes the smart alec bully on “Diet Gum”, laying into a boyfriend. “Do you even know what a collective noun is? I wonder what your group would be? A patheticness of f***wits?” he sneers, before breathing into the devastatingly self-aware chorus: “I manipulate/ That is what I do/ It’s rather easy with you.”
The big dipper of a title track deals directly with mental health: “Have you got depression?/ Passive aggression?/ Did they stop loving you/ And you’re the only one who doesn’t know?” Grant’s tone and phrasing echoes that of Roger Waters on “Comfortably Numb”.
There are more upbeat laughs to be had to the disco bass of “He’s Got His Mother’s Hips” and the handclaps of “Preppy Boy”, where Grant imagines getting it on with one of the hot, high school boys who bullied him for being gay. The record ends with “Touch and Go”, about Chelsea Manning, the former US soldier turned WikiLeaks activist who transitioned to a woman while in prison: “You can’t stop the process of the truth, try as you might.” He’s right.