Ever since the dawning of the CD era encouraged artists to fill up all available space in the same way that all-you-can-eat buffets bring out a curiously competitive dark side in the best of us, the chance of encountering a lengthy album that breezes past tantalisingly and compels us to instantly go again has been slim. Despite clocking in at almost an hour, John Grant’s ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’ is one such uncommonly striking release.
The album is bookended by a variety of voices intoning a quotation from Corinthians about the many virtues of love, the initial outing eventually exploding into an electronic squall that serves to underline how unconvincing Grant found that message. A moment of pause is provided before the remarkable title track begins the convincing case for its creator being considered one of our greatest modern lyricists. Black humour, sharp observation and a playful but meticulous knack with words, surely aided by his capacity as a multi-linguist, make ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’ a record which satisfies on every level. What lies between those two biblical markers is one man’s experience of relationships, told in acerbically honest fashion.
In many ways this is a more bolshy take on the split sonic palette explored on 2013’s ‘Pale Green Ghosts’, although the rich electro bursts are far more integrated this time and the fluctuating approach is entrancing. Wit and wisdom inform the lyrics, with self-deprecation carved out as an eloquent art form. Grant’s striking, compelling honesty has been a hallmark of his solo releases to date and the album’s title track doesn’t hold back. Essentially a warning against self-pity from a man adjusting to life after an HIV diagnosis, he ranges across numerous moments of frustration only to reproach himself on one of the less radio friendly bridges in the history of songwriting: “but there are children who have cancer, so all bets are off.”
The album is a bold, idiosyncratic collection of songs crafted under intense time pressure after producer John Congleton insisted that Grant have all of the material ready to go before entering the studio. Such a challenge certainly seems to have focused the mind and, while ‘Queen Of Denmark’ and ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ both built up to dramatic showpieces, the consistent stature of all of these songs even in their early days is remarkable. The engagingly whole-hearted funk of ‘Snug Slacks’ is knowingly sleazy and truly hilarious. It’s yet another new angle for him to explore, but the many stylistic shifts are bizarrely smooth because of the true enormity of Grant’s presence. The writhing squelch of ‘Voodoo Doll’ is similarly captivating, recounting an attempt to convey positive feelings to a beleaguered friend caught under the grey clouds of depression.
Despite a title combining the Icelandic for a mid-life crisis and a Turkish phrase for a nightmare, this is his most brash record to date, with even the slower-paced songs some distance from being described as a lull in proceedings. While the lyrics may be a little less directly addressed, they are no less visceral and ‘You And Him’ repeatedly mentions both Hitler and Pol Pot en route to a line that could sound crass or lightweight, but in context is ridiculously joyous: “You think you’re super special but you’re just a big twat.” The song punctures the pomposity of morally bankrupt corporations and thuggish bigots in one fell swoop.
Grant has spoken fondly of the contribution of Bobby Sparks, a keyboard player brought in to add layers to the record, and the pop polish on some of the tracks builds on the hints towards that direction found on his last album. ‘Disappointing’ is a five-minute disco strut which lays waste to all previous sources of pleasure in deference to a new romantic interest. The addition of Tracey Thorn’s warmly evocative voice as it ascends to somewhere rather magical makes this one of several emphatic highlights.
The contrasting approach of ‘Down Here’ is no less spectacular, with a composed, spacious, acoustic-driven arrangement used to explore the vagaries of a love contorted out of shape. A similar pace is pursued on ‘No More Tangles’, which offers far more hope as Grant looks to distance himself from damaging relationships of old through an unconventional figurative co-opting of a shampoo strapline. It was one of four songs on the record debuted during his shows with the Royal Northern Sinfonia last year and its opulent arrangements capture some of the portentous energy witnessed by those lucky enough to witness the collaboration.
Having found happiness in recent times in the sanctuary of Iceland, the channelling of varyingly brutal past experiences through these lyrics suggests that John Grant is far from comfortable writing about brighter times, at least for now. Wherever he may veer next, ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’ finds him in quite remarkable form.
Words: Gareth James
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