Album Review: John Grant – Grey Tickles, Black Pressure

No More Tangles: John Grant breaks out the bath salts (photo: Ari Magg, theguardian.com)

John Grant

Grey Tickles, Black Pressure (Bella Union)

The new lease of life afforded John Grant after The Czars disbanded in 2006 has yielded a bizarre series of chapters in his personal history. Between being lavished with praise for his solo albums Queen of Denmark and Pale Green Ghosts, he disclosed his HIV-positive status live on-stage in 2012, has collaborated with disco flagbearers Hercules and Love Affair, rubbed shoulders with Elton John, and penned Iceland’s 2014 entry to the Eurovision Song Contest (Pollapönk’s ‘No Prejudice‘). Now approaching the ten-year anniversary of The Czars’ breakup, it’s striking to glance back and marvel at Grant’s steady rise to subversive alt-hero.

Now 47 and having taken up residence in Reykjavik, Grant is coming at his midlife crisis from a sideways angle, surveying the world and his place in it with an arched eyebrow and no shortage of sarcasm. The title of his third album owes its name to an amalgamation of the Icelandic name for middle-age and the Turkish phrase for a nightmare, and Grey Tickles, Black Pressure prods at notions of ageing with equal parts resentment and playfulness. There are self-mocking nods to Grant’s more out-of-touch preferences, whether he’s mistaking Joan as Police Woman for Joan Baez, or bemoaning missing out on New York debauchery circa the 1970s. Fabulously, these references click rather than cloy: there is remarkable pleasure to be derived from hearing Grant purr “I do love me some Angie Dickinson” on the lascivious funk of ‘Snug Slacks’. The twelve songs sandwiched between the album’s spoken-word bookends are so rich in genuinely funny observations and well-stacked syllables that the whole showcase is inviting even at a comparatively hefty runtime.

It’s not all merry, but as has worked so well on Grant’s previous releases, the more confessional touches come tinged with self-laceration and pithy asides to what the songwriter himself recognises are “first-world problems”. The grand, loping title track rises to Grant’s realisation that “there are children who have cancer / and so all bets are off / ’cause I can’t compete with that”, puncturing his musings on life after diagnosis with a sentiment both tender and petulant. The record continues through numerous phases, from the distorted guitar crunches of ‘Guess How I Know’ and ‘You & Him’ into a run of songs fixated on impending apocalypse. ‘Global Warming’, ‘Magma Arrives’ and ‘Black Blizzard’ portray the grisly consequences of climate change as imagined from Grant’s Icelandic retreat, the instrumentation increasingly wigging out before finally bubbling into the turbulence of ‘Black Blizzard’. The album is rounded out with ‘No More Tangles’ and ‘Geraldine’, a warm pair of graceful, simmering ballads that document the disintegration of a happy union and a frustrated sigh at derogatory attitudes to ageing and sexual orientation. Grant appeals to the spirit of actress Geraldine Page on the latter, grumbling “please tell me you didn’t have to put up with this shit”. What in lesser hands would have become far too maudlin or syrupy, Grant ties into a fitting end to an album that finds the absurdity in grave matters and rides it out with élan.

Thematically, Grey Tickles… runs a gamut of messy topics, but the songs themselves are cast in a smooth sheen courtesy of John Congleton, characterised by bubbling bass and synthesisers that pinball between stripped-back and dancefloor-ready. The Americana of Queen of Denmark merges with the more erratic thrust of Pale Green Ghosts beautifully, the resulting successor sounding varied while still cohering around Grant’s authoritative persona. The aesthetic features enough of a throwback charm to appeal to Grant’s fellow midlifers, though his presence boasts such frank wit and empathy that Grey Tickles… should attract listeners well beyond that demographic. There are a number of cuts which are outstandingly catchy, such as the love-song-in-reverse of ‘Disappointing’, which perfects Grant’s penchant for disco theatrics over a strutting rhythm and a fantastic cameo from Tracey Thorn.

On caustic kiss-offs such as the grinding romp ‘You & Him’ (featuring an excellent duet with a snarling Amanda Palmer), Grant’s husky baritone serves up barbed remarks as cutting as those on Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear. Both are records of this year set apart by their strangely affecting blend of black humour and almost confrontationally direct emotional pleas, yet where Joshua Tillman takes a more extravagant approach to his songwriting, Grant commands his material with earthiness, his pop-culture nods rightly casting him as a single idiosyncratic character. Maintaining such a strong grasp of humour while touching on heavy ideas is a tricky balancing act, but not only does Grey Tickles, Black Pressure succeed from the first listen, its pleasures sound built to last. There’s enough depth and sophistication to these songs to weather many spins, rendering Grant’s third solo album yet another highlight in a career which only shines brighter with each passing year. Bring on the cranky fiftysomething dispatches, please.

“You’re so cute but you remind me of somebody else / It’s on the tip of my tongue, no it’s not Orson Welles.”

26/11/15

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Posted on November 26, 2015, in The Music World and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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