Ever the alluringly spiky contrarian, John Grant heralded his third album with an unnerving promo vid. Pairing Sylvanian Family quaintness with The Shining, the video depicted blood-drenched Grant dressed all mom-n-apple-pie wielding a gore spattered mallet as the title track relayed overhead. It’s all in much the same vein as the music itself, as Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is simultaneously jarring and seductive, a concise encapsulation of the former Czars-frontman’s entire milieu.
Grant’s supple voice has made a career of smoothing unpleasant, angry thoughts and ideas like caramel over grit and broken glass. The title track alone has Grant ambiguously reflecting on aging and his HIV+ status, sardonically lamenting not being around in 70s NY, as he “could have gotten a head start/In the world of disease” before dismissing this – after all, “there are children who have cancer… I can’t compete with that”.
What could of course be insufferably solipsistic and miserable is instead simply rendered in a misleadingly attractive matter, a fact compounded only by a knack for endearing melodies and pop hooks. While all the musical ingredients (lots of synths, brass and programmed drums) could lead Grant’s work to sounding like latter-day Portishead – a lost voice haunting a fractured electronic soundscape – it’s to the singer/songwriter’s credit that, as always, his songs retain the heart found in his solo debut Queen of Denmark.
“What could be insufferably solipsistic is rendered as misleadingly attractive”
Musically speaking Grant has traversed a lot of terrain since that masterpiece; in just three albums we’ve long departed …Denmark’s beautiful and delicately instrumented Elton John aesthetic, so swooningly romantic that its dark places weren’t immediately apparent to careless listeners save perhaps for the track ‘Jesus Hates Faggots’, whose bluntness and emotional frankness exemplifies the album entire.
Follow up Pale Green Ghosts stood far starker against an increasingly electronic palette than the woody, organic sound of that debut. Nobody was mistaking these tunes for chirpy ditties. Icier in tone, the album culminated in the devastating epic ‘Glacier’, a track whose scale and scope is as epic as its namesake but works through the intricate lens of a very personal artist as it details the insidiously destructive effects of homophobia. When compared to ‘Jesus Hates Faggots’, ‘Glacier’ showed a John Grant in closer control of the angst and anger fuelling his work (Interestingly this control seemed discernible even across the typefaces used for his name on each consecutive album).
Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is a work of equally uncompromising expression and controlled deliberation; not as emotionally explosive and immature (certainly not a criticism) as Queen of Denmark, nor as sweepingly cold, elegiac and heartbreaking as Pale Green Ghosts’ strongest moments: it strikes a middle-ground so exactly, its almost underwhelming in its precision. Perhaps only by this writer’s overreaching standards though – by anyone else’s it’s a bloody marvel: full bodied, reflexive and in turns danceable and devastating.
The album deals with areas of self-interrogation and relationships rarely ventured into, with a wit akin to Elvis Costello’s. But where his overly-literate and punning smartassery often emotionally distances himself (and consequently the listener) from the subject, Grant’s crooning humanism brings one right to the heart of the matter. Even when the truths he expels wincingly corrode and coruscate, they never stop being hypnotically engaging and emotionally complex.
“Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is a work of uncompromising expression”
Most of Grant’s work seems to deal with the general unpleasantness of loving someone, be that others or just himself. Again, this is saved from being interminably maudlin and cynical with a healthy dose of deadpan humour, generally supplied through leftfield cultural references. Bedside manner is compared to canine horror Cujo (“but it kinda gets me hot/kinda hits the spot”), and the first five tracks call into play a motley roll call of Orson Welles, Joan Baez, Joan As Policewoman, Angie Dickinson, GG Allin, Charlene Tilton, Hitler, Pol Pot and the Oscar winning film Ordinary People.
Ultimately it seems that John Grant has hammered a stake into his exact milieu now, after a couple of albums of exploration the voice has become set; a wit that can write clunky run-on lines like “Stockholm is a place that I adore/But the syndrome by that name/is one that I abhor” and not come across as anything other than natural. While no doubt musically restless and liable to exercise and emphasise various sonic muscles from album to album (brassier, synthier, pianoier), Grant has, for now at least, found a home. Smart, rude, bitter, lusty, angry, grand and sweeping, to “always be stunning/And never cliché”.
Tom is currently listening to ‘Tenebre’ by Goblin
Co-Editor of the Music Section at University of Nottingham’s IMPACT Magazine.