Grant is one of the most unique artists recording music today.
John Grant is the kind of rare performer who can wear his heart on his sleeve while keeping his tongue in cheek. He can write a stirring song about being “the greatest motherfucker that you’re ever going to meet” that’s as musically moving as its lyrics are bombastically absurd. With a straight face, he can breathily intone a litany of dessert ingredients. On Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, he even jokes about hemorrhoid commercials, heads exploding in Scanners and an uncle losing an arm in a corn thresher.
But the thing is, Grant really does have an uncle who lost an arm in a corn thresher. Even at his most outrageous and jokey, Grant’s music is often rooted in truth, though often preposterously rendered. In fact, the hyperbole and absurdity he frequently uses to convey his message in many ways makes it more meaningful. After all, emotions do make mole hills feel like mountains.
In this way, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure may just be the most effective album to date by the former Czars’ front man, even if 2013’s Pale Green Ghosts surpasses it in pure listenability. But this third album manages to be amusing while tackling the megaton-heavy topic of depression. Introduced via a YouTube trailer that features Grant’s face covered in blood as he smiles maniacally (something Grant, a gay man, says is how he feels whenever someone calls him a “faggot”), Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is once again chock full of the artist’s tendency to hit on both cultural references and majestic nature imagery. In “You & Him” he namechecks Orson Welles, while “Disappointing” refers to the superlative SNL cast members“Gilda, Kristen, Cheri, Amy, Tina and Rachel Dratch” as being disappointing when compared to the object of his desire. But later, “Magma Arrives” and “Black Blizzard” conjure imagery similar to the prior album’s lost highways of “Pale Green Ghosts” and the intensely moving “Glacier.”
As always, Grant borrows from so many styles it’s impossible to pin him down. Even his most rambunctious song, “Voodoo Doll,” begins slowly and with the dreamily gloomy line “You can’t get out of your bed because you’re so depressed” before bursting into the purest funk Grant’s ever recorded, all while he details making a pin-cushion doll of his melancholic addressee and feeding it chicken soup to warm it deep down inside. On “Guess How I Know,” he closes in on hard rock as he sings about knowing his beloved is a zombie because he keeps ripping Grant’s heart from his chest. Speaking of the undead, “Black Blizzard” borrows from the B-movie electronica of French duo Zombie Zombie. And “Down Here” relies on jammy, loosely-strummed guitar that hints at Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing.”
Grant is simply one of the most unique solo artists recording music today. His non sequiturs and cultural references make for vibrant songwriting that requires multiple listens to digest. Sure, he has some duds here and there (“Snug Slacks” is the kind of silly novelty song that his odd approach would routinely yield in lesser hands), and throughout a 14-track album his distinctive voice and offbeat style can slightly wear on the listener. But in small enough doses, Grant is perhaps the most potently innovative songwriter working today.