More dark matter from the Iceland-based bard of frozen barbs and no-holds-barred songwriting
Pity the confessional artist. They can’t win. No matter how much we root for them, we still want them to bleed and keep on suffering in service to their muse.
So it is with John Grant. Having licked his wounds from the emotional battering chronicled on ‘Pale Green Ghosts’, he bounces back in more defiant spirit with a release that’s cheeky, offhand and even a little lusty in places. It may not always pack the same emotional punch as its forerunner, but one of the most idiosyncratic voices of our time remains intact.
“Grey tickles” is the Icelandic term for a mid-life crisis, and once again the topography of Grant’s adopted homeland seems etched into the grooves. But whereas ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ was all glacial wastes and fleeting moments of aurora borealis shimmer, ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’ revels in volcanic fury, sticky funk oozing from the molten rock. There’s even a track called ‘Magma Arrives’.
The title song, recalling Elton John’s 70s heyday, shows Grant hasn’t lost his knack for an arresting lyric. While lamenting life with HIV and depression, he reflects: “But there are children who have cancer / And so all bets are off / Because I can’t compete with that”.
The album comes bookended by two spoken word monologues about love, one delivered in flat Yorkshire vowels swiftly eclipsed by a cacophony of sinister voices, but disco listicle stomper ‘Disappointing’ is the closest we get to an actual love song. It features the languorous croon of Tracey Thorn toasting the joys of “ballet dancers, with or without tights”.
A hefty portion of the record is spent firing vitriolic barbs at former lovers, along the lines of 2013 single ‘Black Belt’, and arguably there are a few too many in this vein, making Grant seem like the synth-friendly Morrissey it’s OK to like. The playground taunts of ‘You & Him’ – which sounds more like the result you’d expect from Franz Ferdinand and Sparks than their recent FFS collaboration did – wear a little thin (”You and Hitler ought to get together / You ought to learn to knit and wear matching sweaters”) but the electro whiplash of ‘Voodoo Doll’ raises chuckles with the line, “I made a voodoo doll of you / I even put it in a corduroy jumpsuit”.
There’s less vulnerability on show this time around, and textures take on a darker, metallic sheen. Space invader armies rampage through ‘You & Him’, squelchy basslines wriggle beneath ‘Snug Slacks’ and furious stabs of guitar noise punctuate the chorus of ‘Guess How I Know’, but there’s some unusual instrumentation too, like the bass oboe solo that plays out on ‘Down Here’.
Grant really hits his stride in the latter half of the album with a series of blistering lunar torch songs where he unleashes that soaring, velvety baritone to devastating effect. His brush with the BBC Philharmonic last year lends some Barry-esque bombast to ‘Geraldine’ and the mercurial ‘No More Tangles’, while the proggy ‘Global Warming’, an amusing diatribe against sun worshippers, weeps with quivering synth lines like some latter-day ‘The Windmills Of Your Mind’.
After these you can easily forgive John Grant his indulgences. Few songwriters can work in references to parapraxis, GG Allin and Prokofiev so effortlessly. It’s good to have him back, grey tickles and all.