Since 2010 John Grant has issued a series of intelligent, darkly funny records. Lyrical obsessions have included masculinity, sexuality, aging, illness (he was diagnosed as HIV positive in 2011) and struggles with self-image and self-worth. Those elements alone haven’t made the art great but the candid nature in which he’s discussed each has. Grant’s wit and sense of self-depreciation have become anthems for the uncool, reminders that the pain of being an outcast never quite leaves you and that, at best, you can learn to cope with it. Whereas some writers might come across as sad sacks, the former Czars frontman has become an unlikely (and perhaps uncomfortable) hero.

His latest effort, Love Is Magic, finds him moving in a variety of directions, issuing an eclectic musical statement that sometimes suffers from a lack of cohesion. The heavily dissonant “Metamorphosis” leads the charge. There are some heavy emotions being aired and in the theatre of it all, the sound of Grant purging his soul makes for some uncomfortable listening. It’s akin to “Baby’s Heartbeat,” from John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1969 set Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions. It’s a painfully private moment made public and one finds hearing it more than once incredibly difficult. The strangeness moves beyond hallucinatory and borders on the sound of a complete psychic break.

The heaviness on Love Is Magic doesn’t necessarily subside, but it does become more subtle. The titular number features more of the throbbing synths and heartfelt reflections we’ve come to expect from the Michigan native across his solo sets. It’s not quite a confessional singer-songwriter moment in the vein of Jackson Browne or Joni Mitchell, but it’s filled with loneliness and a heart that if not necessarily wiser is gathering lessons from the tatters it’s been torn into before.

“Tempest” finds the singer meditating on the glory days of shopping malls and video arcades, the places where the lonely and the lost could take solace in belonging to a mass throng searching for the tastiest pretzel or camaraderie in shoving their faces into a video screen. It’s a nod to a past that no longer exists even if some remnants do: we still stare at screens but we do it alone now, in the privacy of our own home or in carefully cultivated public spaces.

Despite different lyrics and musical settings (although still synth-heavy), “Preppy Boy” and “Smug Cunt” don’t distinguish themselves from each other and don’t quite rise to the heights of which Grant is capable. They sound more like a man struggling to say something, then retreating into the safety of oddity rather than breaking new ground. The same might be said for “Diet Gum,” another painfully plain exploration of a wounded psyche that forces the listener into uncomfortable corners.

It’s hard to say that Grant has delivered a failure here. If his intention is to make us squirm he has certainly succeeded on that account. Listening from end-to-end proves taxing; fatigue sets in about half way through as the laundry list of frustrations and wrongs grows to proportions that one might not even get to with a long-term therapist. Art can force us to trip into those dense explorations and ask us to answer probing questions about ourselves and our appreciation of certain aesthetics.

Not everyone will want to take that journey, however, and the levity that has visited previous outings is not as pronounced here. No doubt Grant has experienced some darkness in recent years that has proven difficult to escape. He certainly deserves to have someone listen and witness these particular horrors alongside him. The question lingers, however, as to how effective that splaying open of the heart really is.

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