Seven years feels like enough time to reward a bearded singer-songwriter who calls himself a Queen and a Wonder Bread bomb on the same record.
2010 doesn’t sound that long ago, but consider this: we’d yet to have an American president come out in support of same-sex marriage, which was still illegal in 40 states. “Modern Family” aired “The Kiss,” a much-publicized episode whose titular smooch brought on the ire of conservative watchdog groups. The waning Tea Party was still flying the “Gay Agenda” flag pretty hard, while the far-right now (for the most part) would prefer to skirt around any talk about LGBT folks.
Those sorts of easily-forgotten differences between then and now are key to understanding John Grant’s much-acclaimed 2010 release Queen of Denmark. Grant’s first solo record after a nine-year stint with the Czars, Queen of Denmark assembles the sweaty, heady anxieties of being a queer man in 2010 into a smooth melodic package. Most of the songs are rough around the edges, featuring buzzy seesaw synths or melodies that start to tip in on themselves, but the skeleton of a straightforward folk album is in there, which makes Queen of Denmark fascinating.
It’s campy and arch without being insincere. It fully respects the musical traditions that it pulls from, but it doesn’t mind gaying them up in the process. Looking back with the hindsight of a near-decade, Queen of Denmark stands as a bold, trauma-laced statement that makes no attempts to spin gold from Grant’s array of shitty situations. Just because he’s funny doesn’t mean he’s happy—he opens “Jesus Hates Faggots,” the album’s best and most abrasive moment, with the line “I’ve felt uncomfortable since the day that I was born.” Grant is HIV-positive, an ex-addict, and he comes from a hyper-religious family who instilled homophobia in him from a young age. It would make sense for his music to be either ultra-jaded or ultra-kumbaya. Lucky for us, Queen of Denmark plays it right in the middle.
“Where Dreams Go to Die” is a great example. The title reads either as a melodramatic lament or a venomous takedown, so Grant gives us both. The music is incredibly ornate: a delicate piano melody meets windswept strings in the first verse, a chugging acoustic guitar and folky drums explode into the chorus. The words, by contrast, fume: “Baby, you’re where dreams go to die/ I regret the day your lovely carcass caught my eye.” Tying it all together is Grant’s delivery—his warm tone tells us that a part of him means every word, but he laces it with a deadpan affectation that draws out the silliness in a phrase like “lovely carcass.” He’s rolling his eyes at himself a little bit without sanding down the gory details of a legitimately damaging relationship.
Queen of Denmark isn’t anti-folk, but it does hit some the same beats. The genre, which arose in the mid-to-late ’80’s as an outlet for bands who couldn’t book gigs at the folk clubs on the Lower East Side, poked fun at the earnestness of rootsy singer-songwriters who carried themselves like clergymen. Regina Spektor and Kimya Dawson ended up becoming some of the scene’s more lasting public faces, but Grant differs from them in that his music remains intensely emotional and delivered from the first person. On “Sigourney Weaver,” he compares dissociating to “feel[ing] just like Winona Ryder/ In that movie about vampires,” but he’s still at the center of the song. The music isn’t an active or political deconstruction of folk music as a tradition. Rather, it uses folk music as a conduit for Grant’s singular acerbic perspective. He feels like guitars and whispers and pop melodies will do the trick, and he’s right.
It’s a small wonder that, for all its acclaim (Mojo awarded it the magazine’s third-ever “Instant Classic” label), Queen of Denmark isn’t seared more deeply into the popular consciousness. It’s impeccably produced, bleeding-heart beautiful, and it gives a sobered-but-playful look at the collective trauma of American gay men. Andrew Haigh, the young British auteur who brought us the Criterion flick Weekend and HBO’s “Looking,” loves to use Grant’s music in his work, but he seems to be the exception to a rule, which is a shame. 2010 wasn’t that long ago, but seven years feels like enough time to reward a bearded singer-songwriter who calls himself a Queen and a Wonder Bread bomb on the same record.