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Song Premiere: John Grant, 'It Doesn't Matter To Him'

Horour Sveinsson
Courtesy of the artist

Some songwriters are so adept at capturing the mess and miracle of everyday emotion that their work resonates as exceptionally truthful. John Grant is one of those. In recent years, the 44-year-old former frontman for Colorado rock band the Czars has produced two exceptional collections of funny, brutal, nuanced songs — 2010's collaboration with the band Midlake, Queen of Denmark, and now Pale Green Ghosts, which will be released in the U.S. on May 14.

The new album confronts difficult topics, including a friend's suicide, romantic disaster and Grant's own H.I.V.-positive status. But with the assistance of friends, including Sinead O'Connor on backing vocals, and with his own beautiful baritone softening the blows, Grant somehow finds the beauty, and even the comfort, that tempers life's cruelties.

Grant recorded Pale Green Ghosts in Iceland, his current home, with producer Biggi Viera, known for his work with electro-popsters Gus Gus. The arrangements veer far from the warm big band sound he hit upon working in Texas with Midlake. "Iceland has very little to do with the decision to make a record which is more synth-based," Grant explained in an email. "That decision was made long before I started making music, because electronic music has always been one of my greatest passions and the '80s are probably my favorite decade for music. But it is true that this album is most definitely about my adolescence and therefore MUST be set to these sounds because they simply were the backdrop to that period in my life."

"It Doesn't Matter To Him" sounds, at first, like a country-tinted folk-rock ballad before opening up, in its final minutes, into a snow-blown synth outro. It's one of several songs on Pale Green Ghosts about a particular youthful romance that left Grant bereft, and like most of his compositions, it juxtaposes humor with raw, painful vulnerability. "I think this juggling act is something that is very intuitive and natural for me because that is how I have survived in real life," Grant wrote about the laughter and tears in his work. "I think the humor, when applied in the right amount, only serves to intensify the other emotions in a given song, it highlights them, makes them stand out. Sometimes it takes months to finish a line because I sense that the right balance has not yet been struck. There are so many variables but the constant is the distilling process, making sure that I am telling the truth to the extent that I am able to be honest with myself."

One thing is perfectly clear in "It Doesn't Matter To Him" — the man who broke Grant's heart has truly moved on. Asked whether he thinks the anti-hero of Pale Green Ghosts will hear songs like this one and perhaps feel differently, Grant answers bluntly. "He will hear it at some point and I can say with total and neutral certainty that it will not matter to him," he writes. "And THAT does not matter. What matters to me is that I was able to express myself, which I find very hard to do with any accuracy. And I feel that I have expressed myself exactly the way I wanted and needed to on this album and this pleases me greatly."

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.