Release Date: Oct 9, 2015
Record label: Partisan
Head here to submit your own review of this album. At this point it seems obvious, but John Grant is one of the finest songwriters working in music. Of course, this much has been clear throughout his career - from his time in The Czars, to 2013's Pale Green Ghosts - but it's easy to take that for granted. Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is not only a collection of emotionally affecting, even heart-breaking songs, but also comes loaded with lines filled with dry humour and a witty turn of phrase.
John Grant's solo career reveals that he's more of a shapeshifter than might have been predicted from his tenure with the Czars. On Queen of Denmark and especially Pale Green Ghosts, he coupled his always incisive, insightful songwriting with increasingly adventurous sounds. The artier he gets, the more clearly he distills his emotions, and Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is some of his angriest, saddest and funniest music yet.
“Middle-aged nightmare” is hardly the snappiest sell for a new record, not least one being released by a biblically bearded 47-year-old polyglot. But that’s the gist of Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, the third solo album by John Grant. The title apparently combines the Icelandic for midlife crisis with the Turkish for nightmare. The cover finds Grant’s eyes gouged out, with two carved owls doing the seeing for him.
‘Tis the season for the rock star autobiography, it would appear – it comes around so quickly, doesn’t it? – and bookshop shelves will soon be bowing with Elvis Costello, Chrissie Hynde and Tom Jones’ tomes, with others surely en route before this most wonderful time of the pop publishing year is over. (Of course Grace Jones, as ever, got in there first. ) John Grant certainly hasn’t avoided the autobiographical so far, and Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is no exception.
“Love is patient. Love is kind.” So John Grant bookends this multilingual adventure in psychological trauma, knowingly juxtaposing St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians with the depressed friends, hated corporations and alienation that make up the majority of ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’. It’s not all doom and gloom though; the work is buoyed, and then some, by Grant’s typically biting humour – a healthy mix of gleeful and sardonic.
Entropy – expressed, as you’ll recall, in the second law of thermodynamics - states that everything in nature, on a long enough timeline, will result in chaos and decay. Everything you hold dear – your home, the love of your life, that tiny brass trophy you won for coming third in the long-jump at your primary school sports day - will collapse, die, and shatter; leaving nothing but a useless and unfeeling pile of atoms. It’s this headlong hurtle towards the void that has proved perfect lyrical and sonic foil for confessional singer-songwriter John Grant on Grey Tickles, Black Pressure – his third solo studio album.
John Grant’s latest, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, opens and closes with a recitation of 1 Corinthians 13, the popular “wedding prayer”, setting both a confrontational and celebratory tone. Grant mixes both elements throughout the album: he damns the “slack-jawed troglodytes” of our zombified age in “Global Warming” while, in “Snug Slacks”, he sings “You know it takes an ass like yours to make possible for me / to have developed such a very high tolerance for inappropriate behavior”. Let it be clear, Grant is ready to fight or fuck.
There are many ways for a rock star to telegraph the message that success hasn’t fundamentally changed them. You can give interviews in which you expound at length on how your life is as normal as it ever was. You can blithely claim disinterest in the trappings of fame, always dressing down in public, never having a speech prepared at awards ceremonies.
Some songwriters pen clever lyrics but vocalize them awkwardly, or compose intricate melodies yet package them in mundane arrangements. John Grant isn't like that. Possessed of a smooth but aching baritone, this Colorado-raised, Iceland-based expat evokes the lushest masters of Seventies rock while delivering sociological commentary and self-deprecating wit offset by dreamlike symphonic-synthetic splendor.
There’s a feeling of regression on John Grant’s third solo album. Where 2013’s Pale Green Ghosts – which finally brought The Czars’ frontman to the mainstream – found him moving away from piano balladeering and into electronica, touching on universal themes that struck chords among the unloved, Tickles… seems comparatively childish, returning to PGG’s mission statement, just in less polished ways. It feels as though it should have been the bridge between Grant’s first and second albums.
John Grant — Grey Tickles and Black Pressure (Bella Union)John Grant’s third solo album begins and ends with readings from Corinthians 1, a text even non-churchgoers will know if they’ve ever attended a wedding. These are the “Love is patient, love is kind…” verses, which set a very high bar for the average pair of dewy-eyed 20-somethings, let alone a man like Grant who has wrestled with all sorts of addiction (drugs, alcohol, sex) , destructive relationships and alienation across multiple decades and continents. Yet though Grey Tickles and Black Pressure upends the ideal in blackly hilarious tracks about the most unhealthy varieties of gay sex, it also cautiously affirms it.
From Texas to Iceland and back; thus far John Grant's solo career could be easily read as a coming-of-age travel story. A first, difficult album of great baroque ballads, only made possible with the help and support of fellow label-mate Midlake was recorded in their studio in Denton; a second electronic LP, a determined detour from the melodic songwriting of his previous effort, born after a relocation to Iceland, the land where Grant seemed to finally find himself at home. Now, it's Grey Tickles, Black Pressure that sees the Grant return to a studio in Dallas as a new man: no doubt more confident and, apparently, more at peace with himself, despite the true meaning of the album's title.
It says something when your mid-life crisis album is your most upbeat album. But even at his bleakest and most confessional, Iceland-based American singer/songwriter John Grant – who sang about being HIV-positive on 2013’s Pale Green Ghosts LP – tends to err on the side of humour. “I did not think I was the one being addressed,” he deadpans in the opening line of his third album, “in hemorrhoid commercials on the TV set.” The lyric sets the tone for what follows: songs about lots of little realizations rather than big revelations, accentuated by clever phrasing and observations that date him – and confrontationally so.
Journalists are always looking for an angle, a way of selling a record they like or a band they believe in, in a way that’s too often at the expense of the music itself. With his monumental debut, Queen of Denmark, Grant was the comeback kid, bolstered by a little help from his friends in Midlake. At the risk of sounding crass, Pale Green Ghosts was "the HIV record," recorded, in the wake of a shocking diagnosis, in Grant's new home of Iceland.