There’s not really any question in my mind that John Grant’s first solo album Queen Of Denmark is the best album of the past ten years. Musically, it is a dazzling 70s AOR masterpiece, which is filled with some of the smartest, funniest and most brutal lyrics you will hear. With his second album Pale Green Ghosts, John Grant’s distinctive baritone and acerbic wit were wonderfully matched to an 80s synth-pop inspired sound with the occasional soaring anthem (“GMF” and “Glacier”).
John Grant’s third album Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, is musically a natural progression from his previous work, although it seems to have found him in a [somewhat] better mood. The album takes its title from a couple of wonderfully evocative literal translations: “Grey Tickles” is an Icelandic phrase for a mid-life crisis and “Black Pressure” is a Turkish description of a nightmare. In a typically self-deprecating fashion, the album finds 47 year old Grant mocking his own “mid-life crisis nightmare” from the opening line: “I did not think I was the one being addressed/In haemorrhoid commercials on the TV set”.
With the first of several (possibly intentional) nods to Pink Floyd, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure opens and closes with excerpts from the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians spoken by different voices. The effect of the overlapping and swirling dialogue in “Intro” soaring until disintegrating into the second track “Grey Tickles, Black Pressure”, is remarkably similar in effect to the opening of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon where “Speak To Me” spirals into a scream before collapsing into the opening of “Breathe”. Similarly the solitary child’s reading of the First Epistle on the final track “Outro” calls to mind the spoken word ending of the Pink Floyd album. The bookending of Grey Tickles, Black Pressure with an unambiguously positive message of love (“Love is patient, love is kind… love never fails”) certainly brings a cohesion to the album, highlighting the sentiments of pure love in “Voodoo Doll” and “Disappointed” in contrast to the sleaze of “Snug Slacks” and the ugliness of “You & Him”.
The title track calls back to the lush soundscapes of songs like “Leopard And Lamb” and “Marz” from his collaboration with Midlake on the Queen Of Denmark album, while speaking quite frankly about his HIV diagnosis. Like the best of his songs (and it is certainly one of those) it is filled with not only vulnerability and fear, but also with great wit and self-deprecating humour. Connecting the personal to the global, the lyrics are so sublime that it is tempting to simply quote them all here, but suffice to say he does discuss the use of the word “parapraxis”, reference “my favourite scene in Scanners” and work “I’d rather lose my arm inside of a corn thresher/Just like Uncle Paul” into the chorus. His resignation over his condition is perfectly realised with the verse “I can’t believe I missed New York during the 70s/I could have gotten a head start in the world of disease/I’m sure I would have contracted every single solitary thing”, before he then undermines his self-pity with the refrain “And there are children who have cancer/And so all bets are off/Cause I can’t compete with that”.
Following the title track, “Snug Slacks”, “Guess How I Know” and “You & Him” form a wonderful trilogy. These songs are not only connected by the electro-funk grooves that would fit perfectly on an 80s New Wave album, but each of these tracks heaps scorn on former lovers with incredible wit and some measure of joy. The sleazy “Snug Slacks” is centred around a drug fuelled sexual encounter with a beautiful, but poorly matched partner (“You know it takes an ass like yours to make it possible for me/To have developed such a very high tolerance for inappropriate behaviour”). “Guess How I Know” catches the moment of understanding that a relationship needs to end, with one moment (“You laughed all the way through Ordinary People, baby/That’s how I knew”) building to an realisation (“You don’t really have any feelings baby. You’re as cold as ice, it’s obvious you’re dead”) to the break-up (“Auf wiedersehen, baby/Bon débarras/I’ll catch you on the flip side honey/Dasvidania”). Musically “You & Him” sounds like a great lost Devo track and finds Grant gleefully mocking a former lover (“You’re not thinking, you have trouble with that/You think you’re super special but you’re just a big twat”), before being joined by Amanda Palmer in a brutal and hilarious chorus suggesting his ex would be a suitable match for a certain dictator (“You and Hitler oughta get together/You oughta learn to knit and wear matching sweaters”).
The album takes a shift in tone with “Down Here”, a song which beautifully expresses longing (“I want what I was promised, I’m a bit impatient”) and “Voodoo Doll” which sees Grant supporting a friend through their depression. Taking its sound from Speaking In Tongues era Talking Heads, the song’s chorus wonderfully expresses his love and concern for his friend, invoking the usually sinister voodoo doll as an instrument for healing (“I made a voodoo doll of you/And I gave it some chicken soup/Did you feel any warmth down deep inside/Did you feel how your blues went away and died?”).
Every John Grant album contains a couple of instantly quotable anthems and after a couple of listens I already found myself singing along to “Grey Tickles, Black Pressure” and “Global Warming”. Like the title track, “Global Warming” sees Grant mocking his own personal insecurities by juxtaposing them with larger global issues (“Global warming is ruining my fair complexion/Augmenting all my imperfections”). As the song ends Grant finds himself reflecting “All I’ve got are first world problems/I guess I better get some more third world kind”. “Magma Arrives” is a wrenching contemplation of (“the monkey’s paw”) curse of his HIV diagnosis. The song begins with “our hero in his chambers now/Luxuriating on a water bed”, before his condition is articulated through pain and shame in the chorus: “Magma arrives/With fire in his eyes/He says it’s time to fill our hero’s veins/With shame that runs so deep/It makes impossible his sleep/Affecting countless destinies and lives”. The sound of the brooding “Black Blizzard” is reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Welcome To The Machine”. A tale of farmers battling the elements for their survival, carries an emotional weight that could just as easily be describing depression (“Black blizzard/Souls will wither/Crushing hearts and bones”).
Tracey Thorn joins John Grant on the wonderful “Disappointing”. An upbeat disco track that follows the tradition of songs such as “My Favourite Things” from The Sound Of Music and LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge”, in listing off a bunch of things that the narrator likes. However, in the true “glass half empty” manner that is expected from John Grant he expresses all of these cherished things as “disappointing” when compared to his lover. Complete with references as varied as “Ocelot babies” and “The genitive case in German, it’s true/Is something that I’m quite partial to” and filled with Shooby doo wop shooby doo bop bops, the song is both hilarious and beautiful with Grant concluding: “There‘s nothing more beautiful than your smile as it conquers your face/There‘s nothing more comforting than to know, know you exist in this time, in this place”.
In “No More Tangles” Grant ends a bad relationship through the language of a shampoo commercial (No more tangles/No more tears”). His analysis of the relationship ends perfectly with the line “Gee your hair smells perfect but I cannot stand to have you around/Not now/Or any other time”. The last song on the album “Geraldine” is an imagined conversation with the actress Geraldine Page. Similar to “Sigourney Weaver” from Queen Of Denmark and “Ernest Borgnine” from Pale Green Ghosts, “Geraldine” sees Grant expressing his fears and frustrations through identification with an actor (“Geraldine/Please tell me that you didn’t have to do it/Like the others/We’re not like them, we’re not that strong”). Musically “Geraldine” opens like a post Roger Waters era Pink Floyd track with Grant using studio effects seemingly in an attempt to (pretty much perfectly) replicate David Gilmour’s vocals, before building to orchestrations worthy of Queen Of Denmark.
John Grant’s Grey Tickles, Black Pressure confirms his status as one of the most consistently brilliant songwriters of recent years. His third solo album finds him in a happier place, maintaining his singular humour and great wit, but without the same anger and self-loathing present in Queen Of Denmark and Pale Green Ghosts. With the songs on the album dealing with love (“Disappointing”, “Voodoo Doll”), lust and longing (“Snug Slacks”, “Down Here”), living with HIV (“Grey Tickles, Black Pressure”, “Magma Arrives”) and the dissection of a lover unworthy of him (“Guess How I Know”, “You & Him”, “No More Tangles”), it is possible to take Grey Tickles, Black Pressure as a concept album about love, certainly “Intro” and “Outro” invite this analysis. However, it is just as easy to enjoy it as a collection of great songs.