Here at John Grant’s fourth solo album, we know very well not to trust any semblance of normalcy. If there’s a folk song base, it’s also littered with modern obscenities. If it presents like a rock opera like 2015’s Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, prepare for lyrical head-scratchers like 'Magma Arrives.' The music is a haunted house where rock and roll used to live. Grant then signed the mortgage and turned it into the buzzing funhouse we see today.
Love Is Magic is his most consistent and enjoyable work yet. “The more I do this, the more I trust myself, and the closer I get to making what I imagine in my head,” he explains. Though it’s easier to diest, the album still showcases his trademark unpredictability. Soft love songs turn sexual. Robotic voices sing along with Grant’s prettiest voice yet. The list goes on.
It helps that Love Is Magic gets as many quirks out of the way as soon as possible. As an opener, 'Metamorphosis' contains some of the funniest dadaisms you’ll hear on the record: “67 yogurt flavors.which one do you want/can’t decide on toothpaste/Emmanuel Kant,” he explains as if humanity’s greatest moral conundrums are present at the supermarket. Underneath it all is a staccato synth that pairs nicely with his delivery. The end result is as wonderful as it is bizarre.
Next is the title track, which is perhaps Grant’s best song yet. Unlike much of his music, the story is direct and coherent. The song is a delicate balance of darkwave pop and raw emotionality. “When the door opens up for you/don’t resist just walk on through/there is nothing left to lose.” Even when in full croon, Grant wants us to hear every last syllable. He has a wonderful grasp on what it’s like to feel alone in 2018.
The meat of Love Is Magic breaks love down into simpler stories. The story of Grant’s crush on 'Preppy Boy' is catchy as hell, but is littered with his trademark wit and catchiness. Here and on 'He’s Got His Mother’s Hips,' Grant daydreams about dating with a glee. Still, these songs are more than just a guy bragging about his good taste in men. Right down to the cover art where he puts his head in a cage and covers himself in feathers, Grant is unafraid of vulnerability.
This gets him into trouble on 'Smug Cunt' and 'Diet Gum'. Both are tales about unfortunate and manipulative lovers, and Grant spares no detail. “Smug Cunt” is a drawn out synthpop dirge, and Grant’s lack of filter plays against him. “Diet Gum” is difficult to get through, providing no breaks from the intricacies of a failed and bitter relationship.
It’s likely Grant intended to make these moments uncomfortable. He addresses exactly this on 'Is He Strange,' and you get the sense that he questions his own poetry even more than his listeners. This intentionality keeps Love Is Magic listenable down to its end at the wonderful 'Touch and Go,' which shines a major key light on many of the records dissonant tones. It’s as if you’re at the bar with Grant, looking back at the record and saying “yes, those were some pretty crazy times.”
Set the tracklist back to one, and you’ll continue to question what makes Love Is Magic work the way it does. Based on Grant’s words about the process, it’s clear that he had more of a set goal in mind then on his previous, often bloated records. Still, his efforts have always been worthwhile, and hearing him reel things in (as much as a wild creative like Grant can reel it in) is a massive love note to the fans.
On the title track, he’s sure to let us know that not only is he out of clean underwear. He says that his dresser drawer is devoid of it. Funnily enough, it doesn’t sound like he was combing through a dictionary for the right word. Grant wanted to make dramatic moments dramatic just as much as he wanted “Diet Gum” to be irritatingly humorous. Imagining his pleasure while composing these tracks adds to the gravity of Love Is Magic. John Grant is not just out to shirk expectations. He’s got something to say.