3 Feb 2019

Songs of Disillusionment

From New Horizons, 5:00 pm on 3 February 2019

Marlene Dietrich was the ultimate world-weary songstress. William Dart listens to new albums by John Grant and James Blake, both peddling songs of disillusionment, and, like Dietrich, doing it with beguiling charm.

Marlene Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich Photo: Public Domain

For the ultimate in world-weary, or as the Germans would have it, weltschmerz, you can’t top Marlene Dietrich.

This 1948 ballad, written by Friedrich Holländer and featured in the Billy Wilder movie, A Foreign Affair, perfectly nails the stoic despair of post-war Europe, tinged with a streak of sophisticated cynicism.  A despair that could fit pretty well with our world today.

American singer John Grant is a man who’s created a house style from opening up his heart for public commiseration.

He made his name as a solo artist with his first album Queen of Denmark in 2010. Essentially piano driven, its songs seemed to put you in the psychiatrist’s chair, alongside a supine, melancholic Grant.

Having fought his way from the depths of drug dependency as well as coping with an HIV positive status, the CD’s title song was heartrending, despatched in a journey that might have been caught in the title of an Allen Toussaint song ... from a whisper to a scream.

There’s always sparring going on in John Grant’s music, more often than not pitting acoustic against electronic.

Take a song like "Caramel", where the distracting blips and bleeps might well be construed as an eyebrow being raised in what could so easily be a sentimental love song. Representing, perhaps, the first seeds of love’s disillusionment

Grant’s third album, 2015’s Grey Tickles, Black Pressure included the strongest play for the single market that this man has made to date.

The track "Disappointing" had him taking his tortured soul for a stroll along Disillusionment Lane, a trip that the number’s video very effectively fleshes out, so to speak. He’s walking to the gym, eventually to be surrounded by a parade of masculine splendor worthy of the late Colt magazine.

It’s a setting that Marlene herself might have envied and I can’t help remembering her very knowing rendition of "The Boys in the Back Room", in the Fritz Lang movie Destry Rides Again.

Is John Grant any happier today, in his new album Love is Magic. The artwork would certainly suggest not, with the singer grotesquely costumed, singing with his head in a bird-cage, lying forlorn under a harp, playing electric guitar in a paddle pool and soulfully bowing a cello dressed as if ready to take in place in a slaughterhouse.

He certainly doesn’t hold back when it comes to dark humour in his songs, chillingly focused in one song – an attack on Donald Trump with an obscene title. It’s a tough listen and I personally find it a little discomforting to have so much electronic overload on top of what’s essentially an Elton John style piano ballad.

But maybe Grant is using this grating clash to emphasize the bogey of disillusionment that’s afoot, although it is little toned down in the album’s most effective song, "Touch and Go".

The singer has admitted that political activist Chelsea Manning has a part to play in this piece’s inspiration and she’s name-checked in the final verse.

But his ultimate targets are wider than this as he also asks us to consider the problems experienced by Jamaica’s Gully Queens, transsexuals and gays who live in the Kingston drains to avoid persecution and murder.

I remember being massively impressed with James Blake’s debut album back in 2011. I’m not sure that I quite met the man himself through listening to his music, but the detail and finessing of his studio patchworking was compulsively fascinating. Songs like The Wilhelm Scream, praised by no less than Beyonce, provided the perfect proof that electronic twitcheries can be seamlessly woven into minimalist gleam.

It’s taken seven years for James Blake to get four albums under his belt, which is something to be admired. His latest release might be titled Assume Form, but it could equally be rewarded with the title of Attain Form and a just attainment it is, too.

James Blake doesn’t quite fit into Marlene Dietrich’s world of tightly governed emotions. In a way, he’s the heterosexual twin of the eternally melancholic John Grant.  So much so that the New York Times once accused him of peddling self-pity bordering on the maudlin.

Assume Form is something of a watershed for the Englishman, now working in the States, with a musically sharp team that’s reflected in the guest spots that pepper these sessions.

He’s made it more personal too, opening up last year about his problems with depression, hitting out at the popular delusion that somehow mental issues can be a catalyst for creativity.

We were given a taste of what was to come with the song "Don’t miss it", delivered with a new insistence reflecting Blake’s recent work with various American rappers. But the delicious smudgings of acoustic piano and electronic bloom are utterly hypnotic, laced with the eerie sound of a solitary woman’s voice evoking the other-worldly domain of the theremin.

Don’t look for illusions and second-hand love in James Blake’s new album. They’re just not to be found, as the singer celebrates a contentment that still eludes the anguished John Grant.

The man whom Brian Eno described as working mostly by subtraction, taking out lots of stuff and ending up with very skeletal pieces, has broken free. The detail’s still there in a song like "Into the Red", but he’s never tackled emotional interaction so piercingly, not so much shattering illusions as casting off demons.

Click "Listen" above to hear these songs and more.

Music Details

'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
Album title

'Illusion' (Holländer) – Marlene Dietrich
Lili Marlene
(The Intense Music)

'Falling in Love Again' (Holländer, Connely) – Kevin Ayers
Yes We Have No Mañanas (So Get Your Mañanas Today)

'Where the boys are' (Greenfield, Sedaka) – The Czars
Sorry I Made you Cry
(Bella Union)

'Queen of Denmark' (Grant) – John Grant
Queen of Denmark
(Bella Union)

'Caramel' (Grant) – John Grant
Queen of Denmark
(Bella Union)

'Disappointing' (Grant) – John Grant
Grey Tickles, Black Pressure
(Bella Union)

'Smug C*nt' (Grant) – John Grant
Love is Magic
(Bella Union)

'Touch and Go' (Grant) – John Grant
Love is Magic
(Bella Union)

'Preppy Boy' (Grant) – John Grant
Love is Magic
(Bella Union)

'The Wilhelm Scream' (Blake) – James Blake
James Blake

'Choose Me' (Blake) – James Blake
The Colour in Anything

'Don’t Miss It' (Blake) – James Blake
Assume Form

'Into the Red' (Blake) – James Blake
Assume Form

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes