REVIEW: John Grant – Boy From Michigan

Boy From Michigan is a mildly frustrating record. At its best, it offers up touching and evocative slices of autobiographical storytelling; simply presented vignettes that tell their stories with a controlled economy. But there are other songs that just don’t work in the same way. They consist of either misguided attempts at satire or political commentary, or self-consciously arch and detached pieces that are slight and throwaway.

Which is a shame. Many of the songs here are brilliant, Grant using personal history as a lens for exploring America and its many contradictions. ‘Rusty Bull’ begins as a memory of the giant rusting bull that sat above a junkyard where his father used to go. With its talk of the stairs that “creak at the Five and Dime” and the sun “goin’ down behind the maple trees” it’s a portrait of smalltown American life in the vein of Springsteen. But as the song progresses, the bull assumes a more menacing, metaphorical feel, acting as a painful reminder of his failure to conform to a socially acceptable form of masculinity. When Grant sings that the “bull tightens his grip” it is a powerful exploration of the relationship between memory and trauma, and how difficult it can be to escape our pasts. The hallmarks of a romanticised smalltown life might be on display here, but that world isn’t accepting of everyone.

Grant’s relationship with the places in which he grew up and his sense of himself as an outsider are themes that appear throughout. The opening lines of ‘Mike and Julie’ locate the song on “a lonely back-country road”, before offering an intensely personal reflection on his failure to accept his sexuality, and how that led him to treat the titular Mike and Julie. He ended up hurting both of them in the process. The song takes the form of an exploration of why he did that and an apology, with Grant directly addressing both of them in the song. Again, the lyrics are simple, as though the essential truth in what he is singing about doesn’t need to be dressed up in complicated language or dazzling rhetoric. The music is plain and unadorned too, just some synths, Grant’s voice, and a little oboe. It lends the song the feeling of a secular hymn, with him seeking redemption through his singing.

‘The Cruise Room’ and ‘Billy’ operate in similar lyrical territory but opt instead for piano to accompany Grant’s voice. The former paints a bar called The Cruise Room as a place of sanctuary, “the pink Art Deco glow” offering a warmth and beauty at odds with the latent danger of the world outside. ‘Billy’, meanwhile offers not sanctuary, but a portrait of self-destruction, Grant and Billy “destroying” themselves because of their inability to “support the weight of expectation” and conform to a socially acceptable form of masculinity. Throughout there is the sense that the world has no place for those who are ‘different’.

These songs, and several others, are sad but beautiful meditations on the past, rendered with poetic simplicity. Which is why the songs that don’t work so well are so frustrating. ‘The Only Baby’ and ‘Your Portfolio’ attack the greed and destructive impulses of America society, the former presenting Trump as ‘the only baby’ such a society could produce, and the latter making use of a series of sexual metaphors to mock capitalism. Perhaps we just live in a world beyond satirising, but these songs sound cliched and oddly detached. They are neither funny nor biting enough to function effectively as satire or protest, and despite offering a much less vulnerable face, feel less sure-footed than the rest of the record.

Overall, though, they don’t do anywhere enough to ruin the album. Most of the songs demonstrate how affecting a performer and storyteller Grant can be. The simplicity of the music and lyrics masks the subtlety and nuance of his observations. From a reduced palette he is able to create vivid snapshots of America and psychologically rich narrators. Most of these songs are ones that will warrant repeat listens. I’ll certainly be diving in again!

Words by Will Collins

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