John Grant, like Joe Cocker before him, gets by with a little help from his friends. The former leader of Denver's The Czars ensconced himself with North Texas torch-bearers Midlake in a Denton studio for his new release, relying on guitarist Eric Pulido and the rest of the group to help shape his latest solo album. And, in the process of recording the poignantly heartbreaking Queen of Denmark, Midlake also helped Grant exorcise the demons that he'd long allowed to get the better of him—thoughts that almost led to a suicidal end, Grant admits.
As the album progresses chronologically, so too does the intensity of Grant's confessions, ruminations and exhortations. The conflicted emotional path that Grant has trod as a gay man lends unsettling insight into the delirium of a mind besieged by insecurity. Self-indulgent without being narcissistic, his lyrics play out as brutal, yet tender handwritten letters that were never actually sent.
During these sessions of musical group therapy, Midlake was well into the creation of its latest opus, The Courage of Others. And, true to form, the hypnotic flutes and progressive folk haze that imposes itself through Denmark's first two numbers is as plain to hear as it is pleasing. Similar to his Jethro Tull-admiring collaborators, Grant dusts off his love for the sounds of the 1970s. The golden veneer of "Sigourney Weaver," for instance, feels lifted directly from Elton John's costume closet. Meanwhile, standout numbers like "Where Dreams Go to Die" beautifully showcase Grant's disarming baritone, accompanied chiefly by piano.
It's as if John Grant asked Midlake what it might do if he were to sing out of key, and they smiled back a response of "More flute, maybe?" It works, though: This album is a stunner and needs little else.