John Grant's solo career reveals that he's more of a shapeshifter than might have been predicted from his tenure with the Czars. On Queen of Denmark and especially Pale Green Ghosts, he coupled his always incisive, insightful songwriting with increasingly adventurous sounds. The artier he gets, the more clearly he distills his emotions, and Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is some of his angriest, saddest and funniest music yet. It's also his most diverse, building on Pale Green Ghosts' electronics with blobby synths and taut funk and new wave underpinnings. Combining the Icelandic term for "midlife crisis" with the Turkish phrase for "nightmare," the album's title and cover telegraph Grant's headspace: caught between existential humor and terror, youth's lingering ambitions and the disappointments of age, he uses his crisis as an opportunity to pair lavish sounds with razor-sharp lyrics that tear them down. Grant bookends the album with recitations of 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 ("Love is patient, love is kind...") and explodes any truisms about relationships in between. There's a fine line between come-ons and kiss-offs in his world, and lust rots into anger on the Talking Heads-esque "Snug Slacks" and the seething "You & Him," which boasts one of the album's most brilliant couplets: "You and Hitler ought to get together/You ought to learn how to knit and wear matching sweaters." However, Grant aims some of Grey Tickles, Black Pressure's sharpest barbs at himself. He steeps the title track in hyper-aware self-loathing and characterizes addiction as a supervillain who fills "our hero's veins with shame" on "Magma Arrives," an allusion to one of Spider-Man's lesser-known foes that is among scores of obscure and common pop culture references packed into the album. These touchstones only underscore how unique Grant's perspective is, even on Grey Tickles' cheerier moments. "Disappointing," an inspired synth pop duet between Grant and Tracey Thorn, paints the best things in life -- which include Central Park on an autumn day and the women of Saturday Night Live -- as letdowns compared to that special someone; on the funky "Voodoo Doll," he uses the object to make a friend feel better instead of worse, going so far as to give it some chicken soup. Grant ends the album on a surprisingly uplifting note with "No More Tangles," which, despite its shampoo-inspired title and increasingly lavish arrangement, never loses its emotional impact. At nearly an hour long, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is a dense, rewarding listen from an artist who's becoming more complex, and more direct, with each album.
Grey Tickles, Black Pressure
(Digital Download - Bella Union #PIASDIGITAL603)
Review by Heather Phares