We’re not expecting a great deal of sympathy for the self-inflicted difficulties we’re about to discuss, however sometimes these musician types don’t half try to make our lives difficult. Reviewing a John Grant album is like unpicking a puzzle: with the layers of meaning, the waves of sarcasm and the tongue that lurches from cheek to cheek and back again with rapid fire abandon. That’s before you even get to his choice of language; multi-linguist John has a vocabulary the match of anyone we’ve ever come across, who else would send us scurrying for the dictionary with terms like parapraxis (another term for a Freudian slip), which he admits he only just learnt himself. Then there are the cultural references, a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of subjects from the Golden-era of film stars to Russian Composers and Comedians. Whilst his impressive array of references and linguistic flourishes are tricky to follow, he’s by no means the only examination a music writer has been expected to sit.
Ian Curtis was famous for throwing in literary references, and inspiring a generation of anarchic-punks to read Gogol, Ballard and Kafka. Joanna Newsom, discussing her upcoming album Divers with Uncut Magazine, admitted she loved the idea of her lyrics being a puzzle that the listener could unravel over repeat listens, even if she went to great lengths to explain you didn’t need to understand every word of it to enjoy her music.
Lyrics don’t need to be intelligent to be great of course, but somehow the challenge of unpicking them, of getting your head around what someone is trying to say, remains fascinating and exciting. Of course plenty of people just like a nice melody and a good bass-line, and there’s nothing wrong with that either, the multi-faceted methods of enjoying music are surely one of its most charming attributes.
JOHN GRANT – GREY TICKLES, BLACK PRESSURE
“Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast”, so starts Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, John Grant’s third album. The quote, lifted from Corinthians, is as familiar to us now as the kind of thing you see written on a tea-towel as it is as a passage from the Bible. At the start of the album it’s read by a slightly gruff sounding Mancunian, he’s quickly interrupted by John Grant reciting, what we assume is the same phrase in Icelandic, synths buzz aggressively, and a female vocal enters. The whole thing sounds like an ironic ruse, John poking fun at this old fashioned, slightly trite interpretation of love as the simplistic and always positive thing.
Life in recent years has been on a pretty much constant upward trajectory for John, certainly it’s far removed from the days of Midlake dragging him to the studio, helping him sober up and producing his debut solo album, Queen Of Denmark. The follow up to that album, Pale Green Ghosts, saw him nominated for a Brit Award, he’s got famous friends from Elton John to Sinead O’Connor, he’s in a happy, stable relationship, and living in Iceland. How on earth does a musician, who has made a career out of being angry and hurt, come to terms with, you know, things being pretty good?
For the most part John makes this shift seems entirely effortless, by looking back over the history of his past-love affairs, he draws out the same pain, anger and humour from the situations he managed on his previous two efforts. On the title track, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, he tackles depression and mid-life crises, he laments being the target of, “haemorrhoid commercials on the TV set” and how his problems are compared to, “children who have cancer and I can’t compete with that”. On stand out track, Global Warming, he again manages to look at the world’s problems and bring them back into how they affect him, a sort of deliberately comic self-absorption, “global warming is ruining my fair complexion, augmenting all my imperfections and Brazil does not need more encouragement.”
There are moments on this album though, where you do wonder if the joys of life are catching up with his cynical world out look, there’s a slightly uninspired late-middle to the album, in the shape of Magma Arrives and Black Blizzard, where the usually fun to be around Mr Grant, slips into a sort of damnation of near Biblical proportions. It’s not that songs are bad, Magma Arrives with its delightfully produced gospel-tinged backing vocals and Black Blizzard’s Perfume Genius-like synth-laden techno, are excellently delivered, they’re just a little po-faced and you find yourself waiting for a classic John Grant punch-line, that sadly never arrives. Instead we get, “your face will melt right off your skeleton, see his bite is much worse than his bark” and, “black blizzard, eternal winter, will you forsake your own?” It’s possible these tracks have a deeper meaning, but the normally decipherable lyrics are here left impenetrable.
The antithesis of those tracks comes in the shape of, Snug Slacks, a track that for different reasons is arguably no easier to love. Whilst the decision to come across as Midnight Vultures era-Beck’s even sleazier Uncle is clearly a touch tongue in cheek, the obscure reference points of Joan As Policewoman, Angie Dickinson, GG Allin and Charlene Tilton, are just a bit too obscurest and smug. Whilst You & Him, a song about how his ex and Hitler, “ought to get together, you ought to learn to knit and matching sweaters” draws a smile on first listen, with each repeat listen, the angst does sound a little forced. Again these are not by other peoples standards awful songs, it’s just that by the impossibly high bar he’s set himself, they fall a touch short of the mark.
These tracks are all probably part of John fighting to give this album an identity, there is a logic to the way it flows, starting with sleazy lusting, falling into a darker period where bigger questions need to be answered and then coming out the other side. This adherence to the concept may well add to the joy of the album as a whole. Would Disappointing sound so triumphant and joyous, had it not been proceeded by the darkness; and what a joyous triumph it is. The moment where his predisposition to make dance-floor ready music collides with his stunning ability with language to create a Disco-classic with something magical to say. John, and guest vocalist Tracey Thorn, taking it in turns to list off a series of their favourite things from Ocelot Babies to Prokofiev and French Horn sections to the Dolomites, which all, with the one exception of Bath Salts, are now disappointing compared to his lovers face, as surmised in what is surely the most beautiful lyric ever written, “there’s nothing more beautiful than your smile as it conquers your face”.
No More Tangles somehow perfectly captures the sound of a sun rising and clouds parting, and finds John learning from his previous experiences, “jeez your hair smells terrific but I cannot stand to have you around, not now or any other time”. Even here at his most grandiose and heart-wrenchingly honest, he still finds time for humour and revelation. Penultimate track Geraldine is this albums equivalent to the stunning Glacier from Pale Green Ghosts, written as a tribute to actress Geraldine Paige, it’s John looking back over all the torment love and relations have brought him, and pleading with Geraldine to, “please tell me that you didn’t have to put up with this shit.” It’s ambitious, cinematic, grandiose and everything the best John Grant songs tend to be.
“Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast” so ends Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, John Grant’s third album. At the end of the album it’s read by a child, the vocal un-doctored, uninterrupted and unaccompanied. The whole thing sounds like an earnest and faithful belief that love can conquer all. The old passage, clichéd and ridiculous, but still as John himself put it in a recent interview, “also quite beautiful”. This is John Grant’s love album, but like the passage that opens and closes it, perhaps how you interpret these explorations isn’t quite as simple as you initially imagined it to be.
Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is out now on Bella Union. John Grant embarks on a short UK tour in November, before returning at the start of next year. Click HERE for full dates.