Armed with a bloodstained croquet mallet on promotional photography and motivated by his mid-life crisis nightmare (the symbolic meaning behind John Grant’s third album’s title Grey Tickles, Black Pressure), the Michigan-born Iceland-emigrant is now ready more than ever for a fight and to do some ignorance-bashing.
Although Grant is regretful and appalled by the damaging, dangerous and hedonistic lifestyle of his past life (excessive alcohol, sex and drug-abuse), musically and lyrically, he grows more impulsive and erratic with every album – even this time colourizing his voice in different shades of electronic production in the realm of The Flaming Lips. This behaviour results in his most courageous and enterprising collection of orchestral-backboned 80’s-influenced synth folk ballads yet.
In one of many experiments on perspective, Grey Tickles, Black Pressue is book-ended by a biblical quote about love – which John Grant was taught in his religious childhood – that could be seen as two dimensional and unrealistic. When the adults read the speech in “Intro” in an echoey, multi-lingual (German, Icelandic) and layered fashion, it sounds naïve and fake but when a child delivers the sermon in “Outro”, it sounds hopeful and optimistic; like anything at that stage of growth.
Grant confronts the ignorance of society and himself with his idiosyncratic sarcasm, frustrated anger and thought-provoking commentary, significantly battling his biggest ongoing obstacles – homophobia and HIV+ illness – with various techniques of bravery. “Snug Snacks” is his boldest unleash of sexuality pride. No longer shackled to shame by his father (“JC Hates Faggots” from debut Queen of Denmark) or childhood repression, he flirts seductively to a male object of lust, unafraid of being sexually unorthodox.
Its playful funk recalls Prince – especially in the close-to-mic talk-singing moments – and the free-spirited groove of new androgynous musician Shamir. It also imagines the setting of a 1970s disco, an exclusive haven for homosexuals at the time. Furthermore, one aspect of “Global Warming” subtlety objectifies men and the music video for ironically-titled Tracey Thorn collaboration “Disappointing” unashamedly films Grant walking through a gay sauna and will act as a power statement of artistic liberation.
The song itself through is more romantic that that. “There’s nothing more beautiful than your smile as it conquers your face”, could be targeted at Grant’s latest Icelandic boyfriend – a striking contrast to the furious lament of an ex-lover on predecessor release Pale Green Ghosts. Borrowing from Rule #32 in the comedy flick Zombieland, Grant appreciates the little things in life like “rollercoasters and earl grey malts” and the innovative comedienne cast of Saturday Night Live. Its eclectic, blended genre of doo-wop-dance-punk-funk is fittingly eccentric and free from restraint, like his unchained life in Iceland.
Name-checking celebrities, idols and pop culture continues to be a welcomingly human and humble aspect of his lyrics – it’s more out of fascination than the laziness of the Tinie Tempah technique. In this album, Grant goes further in their inclusion, using shampoo products as metaphors for life in the slogan-named “No More Tangles“, but the song is also memorable for the lyric “Stockholm is a place I adore but the syndrome by that name is one I implore”, which doubles as a reference to the phenomenon of hostage sympathy and the fact that this was the city that Grant found out his HIV diagnosis.
Yet his perspective on the misfortunes of his sickness reverses on the title track “Grey Tickles, Black Pressure“, by comparing it to “children who have cancer”, and feeling disgusted by his own self-pitying. This track and the whining of first world problems of “Global Warming” are lessons that serial complainers could learn from. Importantly, they also act as a statement of his strong-willed perseverance and how he will face any fear-provoking challenge that bestows upon him. No matter how big or small. John Grant’s Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is out now on Bella Union, purchase it on iTunes here.
Words by Matt Hobbs