John Grant’s recently released Grey Tickles, Black Pressure was one of those albums for me. You know the ones. The next new album put out by that artist you fell in love with after first hearing their previous record. What will it sound like? How will it affect me? If it disappoints me, will that somehow make me like Pale Green Ghosts less?
These are, of course, ridiculous thoughts, but they are real if you’re a music obsessive like me. But Grant provides a bit of applicable wisdom in the title track, “Grey Tickles, Black Pressure,” which is a laundry list of things you can feel bad, or more precisely sorry for yourself, about. And, as always with Grant’s lyrics, he’s pretty damn blunt about it.
And there are children who have cancer,
So all bets are off,
‘Cause I can’t compete with that.
It’s Grant’s use of language that defines his art to me. It’s not just his personal delivery style, which is very conversational, but in the way the he obvious loves playing with words. He has admitted in many an interview that he is very interested in language, and if I recall is fluent in German and Russian, plus has working knowledge of a handful of others (and is working on his Icelandic). But it goes beyond that. It’s the obvious joy he takes in using specific words, not because they make him sound smart, but just because of how they sound, how they roll off the tongue. Decoupage… luxuriating… obsequious… ocelot… words that don’t need to appear in the songs (though an ocelot does have an important and recurring role in the TV show Archer…), but are just perfect in the way he delivers them. He gives us a few words and phrases in languages other than English too, and name-drops all over the place, from the literary like Dostoevsky and Frances Bacon to actresses like Madeline Kahn and Angie Dickinson to the downright unusual like my personal favorite, self-destructive punk rock icon GG Allin. It’s quite the list. I feel like I need a Cliff’s Notes guide and a thesaurus just to follow along. Stockholm is a place that I adore / But the syndrome by that name / Is one that I abhor. Seriously, who else can write like this and put it into a song and make it work?? Grant is the only person I can think of who can pull off tricks like that.
I was curious about how Grey Tickles, Black Pressure would compare to Pale Green Ghosts musically when I leaned that Biggi Veira (of Gusgus fame) wasn’t involved in the new album. Biggi’s sonic fingerprints are all over the earlier record, and I thought that perhaps his absence from the new one represented a shift in direction. However, that’s not the case, at least not entirely. There was an incredible richness to much of Pale Green Ghosts, perhaps nowhere more so than on the title track, and while there’s a level of musical density to Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, it feels a bit simpler, which puts more of the focus on the vocals. The differences are subtle – the overall composition still has an electronic base to it, though with a wide range of instruments playing their roles. This doesn’t feel as much like an “electronic” album.
Normally on Life in the Vinyl Lane I give my initial impressions of an album, often after just the first or second listen. I know that’s not how a reviewer is supposed to do things, and that may no always be fair to the artists, but initial impressions are still important ones. Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is an exception to my usual modus operandi – I probably listened to it all the way through around 10 times before I finally sat down to write about it. Why? I’m not entirely sure. I know that upon my first listening it didn’t sound like a John Grant album to me, though that impression faded immediately the second time through. Grant throws so much at you lyrically that it can be a bit overwhelming, and I think he simply overloaded my brain circuits during that first listen as I tried to make sense of what he just said while continuing to follow along with what he was now saying.
I enjoy Grey Tickles, Black Pressure quite a bit, and I find it growing on me with each listen. I doubt it will ever eclipse Pale Green Ghosts for me, but that was part of the enormously powerful first impression I had of Grant after seeing him perform live at Iceland Airwaves in 2013, and it’s almost impossible to replicate that kind of experience with an artist as you become more familiar with their work. Grey Tickles, Black Pressure strikes me as more mature and less raw emotion than Grant’s prior record, which is neither a positive nor a negative but simply an observation about this development as an artist and a man. I respect his lyrical honesty, even when it makes me cringe.