Album Of The Week

Life in black and white

John Grant reaches a new high on his third album with his treatise on ageing, love and eco-charlatans

Beauty in the beast and vice versa - you keep thinking of this as you listen to the gorgeously coruscating Grey Tickles, Black Pressure by John Grant.
 

Everything is black and white for the American multilinguist who is based in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik, from which he pontificates on the state of affairs, from romance to the inexorable march of ageing.

As a matter of fact, the title of his third solo album is excellent wordplay, riffing on the literal translation of the Icelandic term for "mid-life crisis" and the Turkish word for "nightmare".

The titular track is a mid-tempo piano rocker with the 47-year-old intoning in his rich, presageful voice: "I did not think I was the one being addressed, in haemorrhoid commercials on the TV set."

His piquant honesty makes you cringe and laugh. "I often stand and stare at nothing in the grocery store because I do not know what to buy to eat anymore," he confesses, as if a sad-sack character from a Todd Solondz drama.

  • CHAMBER POP/ELECTRONICA

    GREY TICKLES, BLACK PRESSURE

    John Grant

    Bella Union

    4/5 STARS

He mentions his HIV diagnosis, but then realises his problems "cannot compete with… children who have children".

It's this vacillation between horror and a sheer lack of sentimentality which elevates this unique singer-songwriter above the earnest, navel-gazing lot.

His mordant wit aligns him with someone like Father John Misty, but somehow, with Grant, the drama mama is no wink-wink shtick. At times, it feels like it is the only way he can handle the avalanche of crises that has befallen him.

Take Snug Slacks, a slithery funky number in the spirit of Prince and Scissor Sisters, as he hopelessly comes on like a Lothario, his come-hithers falling late. Guitars moan while he makes the faux pas of mistaking Joan Baez for Joan as Police Woman.

And don't be fooled by the lemonade cardigan he wears on the album cover. Beneath it is a strutting predator patrolling the aisles of 1970s-styled discotheques, turning the game of seduction on its own head. It's electro-pop with a dollop of asinine for that smooth feeling down your oesophagus.

Guess How I Know is a delicious kiss-off to a former lover, with scuzzy, muscly guitars and sirens circling him as he mentions zombies and the scary movie Cujo.

You & Him is a laundry list of what's wrong with a couple, spiked by the snarling vocals of Amanda Palmer who cracks a whip with relish.

When Grant changes gear into a more glacial form of electronics, he imagines a grim future for mankind. A morbid trio - Magma Arrives, Black Blizzard and Global Warming - are infused with the sort of orchestral strings you'll remember from his breakout solo album, Queen Of Denmark (2010).

The words lacerate, chastising charlatans who bandy labels, "people who talk about the sun" so much so that "they sound like a bunch of Aztec Indians".

Grant wears his knowingness on his sleeve, aware of pop and his place in it. He brings in Tracey Thorn, the chanteuse from the underrated English duo Everything But The Girl, to sing on Disappointing.

Contrary to its title, it's no put-down. It's a disco ballad, listing the wonderful things in the world which pale in comparison to his new paramour.

At the end of the day, all you need is love.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2015, with the headline 'Life in black and white'. Print Edition | Subscribe