John Grant: Grey Tickles, Black Pressure
Stellar third solo album skips skilfully between genres
The length of an album spent with John Grant is an unforgettable experience, an immersion in equal parts misery, autobiography and enthusiastic mocking of the comedy of life. Here the first track proper, also the title song, details the drudgery of his medical complaints, from haemorrhoids to his HIV-positive diagnosis. ‘I’m supposed to believe there’s some guy who’ll take the pain away / and there are children who have cancer / so all bets are off / ‘cos I can’t compete with that,’ his soft, crooning voice tells us. ‘I can’t believe I missed New York in the 70s / I could have gotten a head start in the world of disease.’ FML, indeed.
But the Colorado-raised former Czars singer’s music doesn’t wallow, whatever he’s down on. ‘Snug Slacks’ is a lascivious digital funk concerned with just how good his partner looks in trousers. ‘I could use some help with my thesis on carpet burn,’ suggests Grant, the old dog. ‘Guess How I Know’ and ‘You and Him’ are cathartic, distorted hollers built on clashing guitar and churning bass rhythms, joyful and disconcerting all at once. That description sums the entire record up, actually. ‘You and Hitler ought to get together … get on the phone and call your buddy Pol Pot,’ Grant growls like a bitchy Trent Reznor on the latter.
Tonally, this third solo album skips skilfully between genres. ‘Down Here’ is an openhearted but downbeat take on the sound of Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac by way of Wendy Carlos, and ‘Voodoo Doll’ is a crystalline kind of choral chillwave which bursts into a funk-heavy rap. His taste for the self-consciously maudlin and the catty is matched only by his facility for genuinely heart-warming balladry. ‘All I got are first world problems / I guess I better get some of the third world kind,’ he sings with sudden ecological awareness on ‘Global Warning’, and ‘Magma Arrives’ imagines a gentle catastrophe befalling the unwary subject – possibly Grant himself.
‘Disappointing’ is striking, an ode to a beloved one – ‘there’s nothing more beautiful than your smile as it conquers your face / there’s nothing more comforting to know that you exist in this time and this place’ – featuring the very welcome vocals of Everything But the Girl’s Tracey Thorn. ‘No More Tangles’ promises ‘no more narcissistic queers’ – possibly his romantic hope for the future or perhaps a tongue in cheek comment on himself.
Throughout, his poise and truthfulness to what it is that his fans love about him is perfectly controlled. The listener’s love for much of this music might be tempered by their taste for Grant’s sense of humour, his occasionally sobering bluntness or his liking for electronic effects which sound as though they were 8-tracked in from the 1970s. Yet the grand emotions inherent in songs like the sweeping, elegiac closer ‘Geraldine’ once again sound effortlessly universal.
Grey Tickles, Black Pressure by John Grant is out now on Bella Union.