“Love is patient. Love is kind.” So John Grant bookends this multilingual adventure in psychological trauma, knowingly juxtaposing St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians with the depressed friends, hated corporations and alienation that make up the majority of ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’. It’s not all doom and gloom though; the work is buoyed, and then some, by Grant’s typically biting humour – a healthy mix of gleeful and sardonic.
It’s been just over two years since ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ was recorded in Reykjavik, now Grant’s home. In the meantime he’s been nominated for a BRIT Award, recorded an album with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and toured with the Pixies. Despite the success that’s accompanied virtually every move he’s made since releasing his critically acclaimed debut solo album ‘Queen of Denmark’ in 2010, not a trace of complacency registers in this third offering.
The electro-funk of ‘Snug Slacks’ experiments with dry, snarling spoken word; ‘Disappointing’ has Grant (a gifted linguist) singing in Russian; the gristly ‘You and Him’ demonises the selfish. “You and Hitler ought to get together,” he growls. “You ought to learn to knit and wear matching sweaters.”
Grant’s sense of humour alleviates the seriousness of all but his most tragic songs: even ‘Voodoo Doll’ – about helping a depressed friend, by feeding their voodoo doll chicken soup – uses adorable imagery to soften its subject’s blow. And the cinematic, no-fucks-given glow of ‘Geraldine’ is a fitting way to power down Grant’s hour of dogged contemplation.
This isn’t to say the humour deprives ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’ of gravity. It’s named after direct translations of ‘middle-age’ and ‘nightmare’ (from Icelandic and Turkish, respectively), and in its pensive title track, Grant grapples nobly with the difficulty of putting his problems (his HIV+ status, his history of addiction, his own high standards) in perspective. “There are children who have cancer, so all bets are off – because I can’t compete with that.” Grant has a fascinating combination of wisdom, world-weary cynicism and righteous anger; it never grates.