Over the next few days and weeks you will undoubtedly read a copious amount of column inches describing this, the new John Grant release Grey Tickles, Black Pressure. I will wager my daughters inheritance that the majority will be a facsimile of one another. Every review will tell you how Grant is now coming to terms with his HIV diagnosis, his depression and how the upbeat nature of his latest release is evidence of a new-found self-acceptance for which he has long been searching. They will also tell you this is one of the albums of 2015. All of this is correct, naturally.
So I refuse to merely follow the pack and regurgitate the same beatitudes. Nope, I want to go one step further and tell you why, in my humble opinion, you should embrace John Grant for all he is worth whilst we still have him.
March 7th 2013 will forever be marked large in my calendar. It was the day I gave up, the day I awoke and thought “I can’t do this anymore”. So I didn’t. After months of work-related hammerings I had a meltdown, I was a broken man. I spent the next few depression-filled weeks in a lonely fog of self-examination watching the snow fall from a seemingly never-ending Winter sky. I also listened to John Grant’s Pale Green Ghosts on endless repeat.
The Smiths success was often attributed to the ability of Morrissey to tap into the psyche of the bedroom-bound teenager, the loners for whom his lyrics articulated their desperation and isolation. For me personally, listening to Grant painfully exorcise his demons helped achieve a similar catharsis. Don’t get me wrong, my depression wasn’t on a par with having HIV but what impressed me was the manner in which Grant could pour his anger and frustration into his work and create an album of heart-wrenching beauty and no little humour. I envied him and his talent.
Approaching Grey Tickles, Black Pressure with an objective mind was never going to be straightforward. Since his previous studio release we have been treated to a live offering of his work recorded with the BBC Philharmonic which demonstrated just how beautifully orchestral his material can be. However, rumours were rife that Grant had used that project to firmly plant a full stop on this phase and re-invent himself. The new album was apparently ‘funky’. Oh…
The album commences with some Biblical waffle about ‘Love’, which collapses into white noise before the title track takes us through familiar Grant territory of dismissing his own health problems when compared to others, “…there are kids with cancer, so all bets are off“. If this all sounds too depressing just two tracks in then you haven’t listened to John Grant previously, any sense of morbidity is negated by talk of haemorrhoid cream and issues with supermarket shopping. Already I’m grinning from ear to ear.
Then the new direction kicks in, ‘Snug Slacks’ is pure sleaze, so much so that I needed a shower immediately afterwards. “Snug slacks baby, snug slacks…now let’s get you out of those and see what kind of punch your manhood packs” well, it’s not exactly subtle and Prince may want his lawyers to take a closer listen but any track which name-checks Charlene Tilton, Angie Dickinson and Joan As Policewoman, has to be universally admired surely?
My personal favourite ‘You And Him‘ resembles an early Dandy Warhols number, plenty of fuzz and energy with some of the funniest rhyming couplets since Pam Ayres (there’s a cultural reference for the kids of today). I don’t recall the Warhols ever having the temerity to humorously introduce Hitler and Pol Pot to dismiss past lovers but nothing is off-limits to Grant. He is a master at diffusing complex social situations and emotions through clever wordplay. ‘Voodoo Doll’ is a case in point, with Grant soberly lamenting “You can’t get out of your bed because you’re so depressed, no one understands this and think that you’re a mess” swiftly followed by an upbeat change of key and “I made a voodoo doll of you and I gave it some chicken soup“. You can’t help but smile.
I could go through the album track by track, line by line and pull out endless examples of clever, amusing lyricism because that is who John Grant is and this is what he does. His previous albums have always featured an epic, room-filling ballad such as ‘Glacier‘, ‘Marz‘ and ‘Where Dreams Go To Die‘ but sadly there is nothing quite as momentous and traffic-stopping here aside from ‘No More Tangles‘ where Grant finally gives in and becomes slightly morose and sombre for the first time in over 45 minutes. By then you feel he is earned the right. In general the album is a joyous celebration, best summed up by the duet with Tracey Thorn on ‘Disappointing‘ which is vaguely reminiscent of the The Beloved but with such a darker, deeper subject matter.
To laud Grey Tickles, Black Pressure as yet another great John Grant album is to miss the point. Yes, it’s a truly magnificent and fully rounded release which you should all listen to immediately but then we already knew that didn’t we? What we don’t always recognise is the importance an artist can play in the here and now, their relevance to us either collectively or individually and how their work can so often be seen as just pure entertainment, so much so that we fail to take in its inspirational message.
As for me, well, John Grant, bless him, has taught me some valuable life lessons. Thanks to him, I decided to throw myself into something creative in order to find a foothold back into life…I started to write, it got noticed, it felt therapeutic…I got better. Put simply, I realised I didn’t have to suffer and there were others out there capable of carving hope for themselves from the bleakest of situations. I hope never to go back to March 7th 2013. John Grant may not have saved my life but he did a bloody good job of illuminating a different path. Let’s cherish him and his example whilst we still can, it may not be around forever.