words by maria sledmere
photo by magnus bach
Grand Guignol. Meaning: the big puppet show, or theatre of the great puppet. In the nineteenth century, these grandiose French puppet shows served as the carnivalesque incarnation of radical social commentary, often subjected to censorship by Napoleon III’s police force. Over time, the theatre became a house of horrors, its success gauged by the number of audience members fainting during each performance. Many of the puppets embodied societal fears of the other: fear of the foreigner, the unknown, the sexually inappropriate, the contagious, the labourers, the residues of fluid that betray the body’s bounded limits. It was a riot of special effects and elaborate staging, of psychological drama and frequent gore; a place in which shared anxieties were splayed out for all to devour.
Quite a dramatic act, then, to name one’s debut album after such a feast of historic cultural subversion. Denmark’s Jonathan Schultz, of Schultz & Forever, however, bears the weight of his title with poise and ease. Grand Guignol is in one sense a visceral coming-of-age record: a document of Schultz’s emergence from the insularity of his Free Church Christian childhood and, post-college, into the abyssal consequences of the Big Bang theory; a document of his attempts to seek meaning in art, music and literature amidst the disintegration of his religious foundations. In another sense, Grand Guignol is an artful rendering of more general existential quandaries: a journey towards self-realisation that admits moments of free-fall, moments where we surrender ourselves to powers beyond us, often with love or future uncertainty. Its theatricality is held tight in a sound that is far more expansive than anything Schulz has released on his three EPs to date. The emotional stakes of the album are borne out with slick pop production and whimsical synths, combined with streaks of dark romanticism and Biblical lyric drama that have Nick Cave written all over them.
Released when Schultz was still a teenager, 2011’s Odd Stories EP, with flavours of Nick Drake’s bristling melancholy, comprised reflections from the silence and stasis of the suburbs. Two EPs later, Grand Guignol is Schultz emerging from those softer, more diaristic musings and into a bombastic, complex sound that marries Schultz’s earnest, euphonious voice with an extrovert, eighties atmosphere. If 2014’s Broadcast Dynamics EP was the gelatinous, Connan Mockasin synth-pop chrysalis which gave birth to Grand Guignol, Russian novelist Dostoyevsky provided the distinctive shadows that flesh out the album’s moral and philosophical trajectories. Schultz has previously expressed interest in Dostoyevsky’s work and that incisive, exploratory path towards self-definition is clear in these songs.
In the video to “Backwards”, Schultz performs as a croquis model, bracing himself in various positions, muscles held taught as he stands or crouches, nude before the camera. There’s a sense on this record not necessarily of baring all; but certainly of baring certain truths, whilst maintaining graceful control over each exposure, allowing listeners to assemble the narrative. “Backwards” is an addictive, full-blown pop single, its chorus striking that simple need for human connection: “In time / Won’t you lend me a dime / Won’t you let your heart in mine”. What might be a straight-up catchy paean to love is nuanced by the religious imagery sprinkled throughout: “There’s no religion / And we’re in this together”. Allusions to enlightenment and empathy suggest Schultz is assembling a mythology of collectivity and selfhood based on love over organised principles of community. The song also bears a sense of humour: there’s a performative, exuberant quality to Schultz’s lyric delivery that recalls Alex Cameron, leaping into a suit and grabbing the mic with confident lust. Nevertheless, there remains that hypnotic, cerebral atmosphere: a dreamy interlude, recalling the nacreous, electronic flavours of 2014’s ‘Silvia’, sweeps the song’s adamance into a surreal, reflective space.
As a croquis model only holds a pose for a short amount of time, Schultz’s images are striking but brief, slipping between songs with transitional elegance of subject and tone. The album deals in panoramic, abstract themes: love, self, mortality and otherness. However, Schultz approaches such extravagant topics with a certain levity; introspective lyrics on songs like “Anxiety” are exquisitely mixed with lively blips and harmonic counterpoint. It’s easy to be seduced by his knack for a meandering melody pulled back to a hook, those clean-sounding strums allowing the lyrics to do the heavy lifting. “Alone’ borrows from the breezier, more slacker style of Broadcast Dynamics, a tone shift which suggests the record’s narrator making steps away from collective confinement and into a new individualism. Schultz deftly suggests this emotional pathway towards freedom with nuanced tones that indicate the oscillations between strength, joy, sadness and defeat that characterise his own journey of self-discovery.
There’s a gravitas, for instance, to “Interstate of God’s Children” that strikes a sweet spot between the quirky urgency of INXS-style guitars and the arena-wide darkness of Editors. Flirting with twinkly eighties synths while tackling faith, desire and isolation on the likes of “Make Believe” makes a surprisingly apt combination: “It’s all in my mind now / There’s no limit in the sky”, Schultz sings, building to a typically irresistible chorus. The record often unravels its yarn of spiritual sublime over lighthearted, glossy instrumentation; an effect that retains the emotional verve while avoiding any element of sanctimony or self-indulgence. In no way should you let the occasional heavy, religious titles (“Satan Is Coming”, “Demons”) put you off; while carefully attentive to personal experience, this record is both utterly accessible at the level of theme and frankly also fun in its form.
In Grand Guignol, Schultz’s persona is both muscular and vulnerable: telling elaborate narratives of hope and regret while admitting his persistent insecurities. There’s a sense of the isolation required for self-discovery, of carving out a space in which one might reach for new ideas. There’s that thread of the Künstlerroman—a tale about artistic growth to maturity—running throughout. Several tracks rise from pensive beginnings and resistance to a climax that tells of a general movement towards cathartic release. In “Exquisite Fruits/Ego Death”, Schultz sings over minimal percussive beats and piano accompaniment: “Where is the compassion / I was raised to have?”. The uneasy self-questioning within a dystopian reality is then fleshed out with cinematic synths and a key change that signify a new awakening: “Now it’s time to open your eyes now / And see the world as beautiful / Now it’s time to open your eyes now / We are trapped in a world / Of exquisite fruit”. There’s a sensual tenderness coupled with visionary wonder that lifts every line to a sort of rapture, but Schultz is never afraid to snap the suspended thread with a playful shift in rhythm or key, a nod towards occasional free-fall. The album’s last song, “Shade of Bliss”, takes its rallying, lively rhythm, eccentric Nick Cave-esque vocal acrobatics and crunchy guitars to express a wild release into the immediacies of pleasure and out of the thick, philosophical shackles that characterise much of the album.
Marrying this lightness of touch to the record’s heavy themes gives Grand Guignol a rare, crystalline clarity as a debut. It asks its listeners to share in a story of existential awakening that might seem alien to those not raised in religious surroundings; it does so with precision, energy and a virtuosity that not many singers could pull off. His sound is solid but sparkling, unafraid of stylistic leaps and strange arabesques into avant-garde territory, wrenching eighties sounds out of their nostalgic roots and tossing them into the present and future. Schultz admits that with tracks like “Backwards”, he “wanted to show, in a naked and honest way, who I am at this point in my life”. If the Grand Guignol was a theatre of visceral drama, then Grand Guignol takes theatricality as the starting point for exploring themes that skirt the edge of what it means to be human, suspended between the uncertainties of scientific modernity and the ersatz convictions of religion. Posing questions, striking poses, staging himself as a dramatic, self-searching protagonist, Schultz seems to have honed a mature perspective on life, without losing sight of that childlike wonder that opens the world to the joys of otherness—fruits to be reaped from artistic revolt, the energy in continually questioning and making.
Grand Guignol is out now, via The Big Oil Recording Company
Order it here