It’s been the most spectacular of journeys, from a place in time when John Grant feared he’d never make music again, to winning awards, accolades and Top 20 chart positions, collaborating with the likes of Sinead O’Connor, Goldfrapp and Elton John, as well as a Best International Male Solo Artist nomination at the 2014 BRITS Awards.
Now comes Grant’s third album, the invitingly titled Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, a veritable tour-de-force that further refines and entwines his two principal strands of musical DNA, the sumptuous tempered ballad and the taut, fizzing electronic pop song. There are newer musical accomplishments across its panoply of towering sound, like the title track’s new steely demeanour, while the ominous drama of “Black Blizzard” echoes both John Carpenter and Bernard ‘Black Devil Disco Club’ Fevre’s beautiful and icy synthscapes. The contagious, gleeful “You And Him” marries buzzing rock with a squelchy electronic undertow, while orchestral drama swathes the bad-dreamy “Global Warming” and the album’s gorgeously aching widescreen finale “Geraldine”.
Grey Tickles, Black Pressure was recorded in Dallas with producer John Congleton (St Vincent, Franz Ferdinand, Swans) – coincidentally the same state of Texas where Grant nailed his 2010 solo debut Queen Of Denmark in the company of Denton’s wondrous Midlake. After that landmark return, which MOJO made its album of 2010, 2013’s Pale Green Ghosts was made in Icelandic capital Reykjavik (where Grant has lived ever since), which entered the UK Top 20 in its first week and ended up as Rough Trade Shop’s Album of the Year 2013, The Guardian’s No.2 and in MOJO and Uncut’s Top Five). Such recognition, iced by years of sell-out shows across Europe and a recent US tour as special invited guest of the Pixies, should allow the notoriously self-critical and insecure Grant the passing thought that Grey Tickles, Black Pressure will deservedly cement his reputation as the most disarmingly honest, caustic, profound and funny diarist of the human condition in the persistently testing, even tragic, era that is the 21st century.
“I do think the album’s great, and I’m really proud of it,” he says. “I wanted to get moodier and angrier on this record, but I probably had a lot more fun making it.” He cites “amazing” session keyboardist Bobby Sparks, “who really funked things up,” as part of that fun; likewise a month of Dallas sunshine “after a brutal dark winter in Iceland. And there was a lot of laughter.”
That said, fun isn’t the first ingredient you’d expect when you know the roots of the album title. “‘Grey tickles’ is the literal translation from Icelandic for ‘mid-life crisis’, while ‘black pressure’ is the direct translation from Turkish for ‘nightmare’,” Grant explains, an unusually gifted linguist (he’s fluent in German, Russian and now tackling Icelandic).
Nevertheless, there are plenty of positive streaks in Grey Tickles, Black Pressure. Grant, for one, is in fabulous voice throughout and has moved on from the specific subject matter that shaped both previous albums (though the concept of love always figures into the mix). “Disappointing” – featuring vocal guest Tracey Thorne – is an exuberant tribute to new love, against which Grant’s favourite Saturday Night Live comediennes, Russian artists and “ballet dancers with or without tights” pale in comparison. The album’s other two guests are vocalistAmanda Palmer and former Banshees drummer Budgie.
But the end result is indeed a moody, angry record, laced with levering humour and wounded pathos, yet as dark as Reykjavik in February. It starts and ends with spoken word snippets called, simply, “Intro” and “Outro”, both taken from the same Biblical quote (from 1 Corinthians 13) regarding the divinity of love that young John was taught in church. In between are 12 songs that document the reality of love on planet Earth, corrupted by “pain, misunderstandings, jealousy, objectification and expectations,” as Grant puts it.
The album’s last two songs are among its finest. “No More Tangles” fights against co-dependency “with narcissistic queers,” he sings, through the metaphor of hair care products. “It’s about not apologizing for who you are and not putting up with unnecessary bullshit from people who do not care about you”. But in “Geraldine” (as in the late Geraldine Paige, “one of freakiest, strongest, coolest actresses I’ve come across”), Grant’s latest actor-inspired song is Grant’s chance to ask her if she too had to “put up with this shit” that life dishes out.
So Grant still manages to keep fighting the good fight, and writing his way out of trouble with another fantastic record. “I want to continue to challenge myself,” he says. “To keep collaborating, to get the sound or the direction that will take me where I need to go. To keep taking the bull by the horns.”
Grey Tickles, Black Pressure will be released 2nd October on Bella Union. Album artwork, album tracklisting below:
Grey Tickles, Black Pressure tracklisting:
2. Grey Tickles, Black Pressure
3. Snug Slacks
4. Guess How I Know
5. You & Him
6. Down Here
7. Voodoo Doll
8. Global Warming
9. Magma Arrives
10. Black Blizzard
12. No More Tangles