John Grant unleashes a confrontational, unapologetic sensuality that is celebratory, but also tempered by melancholy.
John Grant’s latest, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, opens and closes with a recitation of 1 Corinthians 13, the popular "wedding prayer", setting both a confrontational and celebratory tone. Grant mixes both elements throughout the album: he damns the "slack-jawed troglodytes" of our zombified age in "Global Warming" while, in “Snug Slacks”, he sings “You know it takes an ass like yours to make possible for me / to have developed such a very high tolerance for inappropriate behavior". Let it be clear, Grant is ready to fight or fuck. This is his most sensual album, meant to be danced to and seduced by (or during), though it is no less a listener's album, as Grant's lyrics reveal him to be emboldened by progress yet enraged by those social forces still aligned to slow or quell it.
The whirls, blips, and bloops of analog synthesizers, dominate the album’s sonics as Grant reaches back to the hedonistic dance clubs of late '70s New York City, Berlin, and other underground, pansexual scenes for inspiration. In the title song Grant even voices his wish to be transported back to 1970s NYC so that he can contract all the new diseases in their nascent forms. It's a sardonic nod to a self-destructive streak and, of course, to the reality of his HIV+ status, but without self-pity (children with cancer trump any personal complaints, he wryly notes). Grant has embraced his condition and, in doing so, seems to have freed himself to express his sexuality more openly than on his previous records. In those, his status and inclinations, while never hidden, were often expressed in reaction to the perceptions of the status quo. There was a "fuck-off" self-defensiveness that was refreshing on those records; here, his attitude is "fuck it" as he abandons concern for external definitions of himself or his sexuality.
Listening to this album, I think of Freddie Mercury, whose outrageousness was nonetheless tempered by his inability to be, simply, out. Grant shares Mercury’s propensity for tongue-in-cheek grandiloquence and pop culture reference points (Think “Don’t Stop Me Now” or “Bicycle Race”). Mercury’s iconic martyrdom of the past decade obscures that fact that the American music audience of the early 1980s demonized his attempts to peak from behind the door of his closeted sexuality. When Mercury demanded that his band abandon their long-held "no synths" policy and then introduced dance elements from the Munich club scene to their albums, most notably on Hot Space, many fans and the music press turned on him. At the heart of this reaction was an ingrained homophobia made even uglier by fears and misconceptions regarding AIDS, which the singer, ironically enough, had not yet contracted. If this isn't the kind of album Mercury himself would have produced had he lived to see growing acceptance of LGBTQ issues, then it is certainly one on which he would have lent his voice (and can one imagine how majestic the shared, soaring vocals of Mercury and Grant would have been).
Grant has explained that the album’s title is an amalgamation of the literal translation of the Icelandic phrase for “mid-life crisis” and the Turkish word for “nightmare". It’s an apt descriptor for this collection of angry yet uplifting songs of stubborn perseverance. “How am I supposed to live in a world without Madeline Kahn?” he sings in “Global Warming”, an attack on identity politics and willful ignorance. Amanda Palmer guests on "You & Him", adding her familiar brand of insult comedy with a chorus that could have come straight from her own Theatre of Evil project. Grant reveals his lack of cool by mistaking Joan Baez for Joan as Police Woman but snaps back with “Joan Baez makes G.G. Allin look like Charlene Tilton". In “Down Here,” he sings “What we got down here is oceans of longing... All we’re doing is learning how to die / You really think nobody sees the fear behind your smile” as a distorted oboe drones like an electronic thrum. But “Magma Arrives", with its fire in the blood central metaphor offers a vision of hope rising above shame and a sense that staying alive is a victory unto itself when faced with so many internal and external crises. “Black Blizzard” offers the darkest moments of the album, visions of nuclear winter or global pandemic, the cold, '80s synths and robot voice evoking the Cold War. But it is followed by the rapturous love song, the Tracey Thorn duet “Disappointing”, a catalog of all the awesome things in this world that pale in comparison to his new lover.
The album closes with “Geraldine”, one of Grant’s patented contemplations of celebrity, this one dedicated to the great Broadway actress Geraldine Paige, of whom Grant asks the simple, repeated question “Geraldine, tell me that you didn’t have to put up with this shit.” And we know the answer: of course she did. And so us all. Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is about the myriad frustrations and rewards of putting up with that shit. There is no Calgon to take us away from society’s ills, but there is art to help us face it. And John Grant is making some of the best art of the new millennium as he struggles with his many demons, both those internal and those external.