With Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, John Grant finally arrives at one perfect amalgam of his peculiar skills, securing a subtle musical balance between the lush orchestral pop of Queen of Denmark and the flinty electropop of Pale Green Ghosts, and honing to a razor-edge his verbal talent for smuggling the most abrasive of attitudes through taste barriers by dint of his warm crooner’s delivery.
Bookended with quotes on love from Corinthians I, it’s an album again racked with Grant’s familiar anxieties, angers and yearnings: his devotion is gushingly enthusiastic, his lust impolitely exuberant, his antagonism immediately nuclear, and his melancholy blacker than black. And entwined throughout it all is his uniquely brusque, sardonic, literate sense of humour. The album title, for instance, combines translations of the Icelandic idiom for “mid-life crisis” and the Turkish idiom for “nightmare”, which gives some idea of what’s bugging the late-blooming 47-year-old singer. And the title track itself is a masterpiece of self-deprecation, the glumly immersive piano and orchestration carrying the bitterest of ironic self-pity, even for things that never actually happened: at one point, the HIV-positive Grant can’t believe he missed New York in the Seventies, musing “I could have gotten a head start in the world of disease”.
None of Grant’s positions here are without their tempering drawbacks. The gorgeous “Global Warming” finds him on the horns of a dilemma, disparaging sun-worshippers who don’t suffer in the heat like him, yet at the same time voyeuristically admiring their tanned torsos; while his romantic obsession can only be adequately expressed in negative terms in “Disappointing”, a litany of wonderful things found disappointing “compared to you” . He’s accompanied in his disillusion by Tracey Thorn, whose voice has the perfectly jaded edge appropriate to the glass half-empty theme, delivered over slinky electro-funk with cute doo-wop touches to the choruses.
Compared to the brutally mechanistic synth work of Pale Green Ghosts, there’s a more hedonistic tone to the electropop here, which seethes with a squelchy sense of fun, which Grant credits to session keyboardist Bobby Sparks, whose funky touch illuminates the songs with Seventies sway and strut. It enables the singer to play against expectations in sometimes shocking ways, drawing on Hitler, Pol Pot and Chernobyl in a contemptuous denigration of someone “they should chemically castrate” in “You & Him”, or getting downright lascivious in “Snug Slacks”. Recited in a predatory murmur over porno-funk synths, it recalls the transgressive style of the New York “No Wave” post-punk scene – as does the Suicide-like “Guess How I Know”, where Grant’s genial croon of mild disaffection periodically explodes into blistering antagonism. This undertow of anger seems always present throughout the album, most directly confronted in “Magma Arrives”, an account of how years of humiliation, shame and resentment fester and grow toxically volcanic.
It’s not all raging fury and recrimination in this richly rewarding album, though. Grant acknowledges his need to develop greater emotional maturity in “No More Tangles” – though even his determination to strip away complacency and illusion in “Down Here” comes at a characteristically bitter cost, leaving him painfully aware that “what we got down here is oceans of longing, guessing games and no guarantees”. Real life, in other words.
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