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Review: John Grant - Grey Tickles, Black Pressure

Middle-Age and Turkish Nightmares - Grant's latest album has it all

Review: John Grant - Grey Tickles, Black Pressure

"Grey Tickles, Black Pressure" released October 8th via Bella Union

Simon Fearn

W!ZARD News Author

It’s not every day that a bearded Icelander, who blends silky chamber pop with desperately uncool electronica, scales the upper reaches of the charts. But John Grant has done just that, sitting comfortably at No. 5 as I write, with his third solo album ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’.

If anybody’s wondering, the album’s title combines the Icelandic phrase for middle age and the Turkish word for nightmare. Forbidding stuff, but you’d never have guessed at such glum subject matter if you’d given the album a casual listen. The shoo-wopping and cheesy synths of lead single ‘Disappointing’ and the warm acoustic pop of ‘Down Here’ and ‘Global Warming’ are a far cry from the titular middle-aged nightmare.

The lyrics are also consistently hilarious, delivered in downbeat, conversational style akin to Courtney Barnett. In ‘You & Him’, Grant unleashes a catalogue of over-the-top abuse, culminating with ‘you and Hitler ought to get together’. He goes one better on the melodic title track, grudgingly putting his own issues into perspective by admitting ‘there are children who have cancer/ and all bets are off/ because I can’t compete with that’. Nevertheless, he’d still rather ‘lose his arm inside of a corn thresher’.

The music is, for the most part, just as fun as the lyrics, although ‘Disappointing’ and the title track narrowly escape becoming inoffensive easy listening. The combination of lush strings and synths that sound like they’ve been stolen from a John Carpenter film actually works surprisingly well.

The record leaps between genres with gay abandon: meaty guitars spice up the chorus of ‘Guess How I Know’; the ridiculous chorus of ‘You & Him’ flirts with the idea of pop punk; and ‘Voodoo Doll’ tries to make minimalistic funk out of chicken soup and corduroy jumpsuits.

The weirdness does get a bit much in ‘Snug Slacks’, a libidinous monologue that sounds like ‘The Monster Mash’ if it tried to be sexy. Elsewhere, Grant injects some real emotion to counterbalance the floods of irony on tracks like ‘Magma Arrives’ and ‘Black Blizzard’. This does tend to work, although sometimes Grant is incapable of taking himself seriously for any length of time. The heartfelt chorus of ‘No More Tangles’ (‘No more tangles/ no more tears’) is instantly taken down a notch by the following line about ‘reindeer games with narcissistic queers’.

In fact, the only problem with the album is that Grant’s biting, offbeat humour sometimes glosses over the raw emotional core of the record. Because songs like ‘Down Here’ are so easy on the ear, it’s easy to miss lines like ‘Cus all we’re doing here is learning how to die/ Do you really think that nobody sees the fear behind your smile?’.

This aside, ‘Grey Tickles Black Pressure’ is strange and compelling. It’s refreshingly uncool, preferring the sounds of sixties ballads and eighties synth pop to current trends. There is never a dull moment, and paying careful attention to the lyrics will not only reveal some of the most bizarre choruses known to man, but also painful truths that happen to be decked in charming indie pop.

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