John Grant, former frontman of indie-rockers The Czars, has been quite hard to pin down throughout his solo career. The only real constant has been his remarkably smooth and thick baritone - an assured and mature instrument. His third solo album Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is his most consistent yet, placing his playful, tender, sometimes theatrical performances amid lush pop soundscapes to paint a surprisingly frank portrait of depression.
"I often stand and stare at nothing in the grocery store," Grant sings on the album's title track, which follows a brief but strange intro that features the mantra-like Bible verse "Corinthians 13:4-8" recited in various languages: "Love is patient, love is kind..." On this record, Grant openly confronts the reality of suffering and anguish as a middle-aged person from a relatively privileged background; "There are children who have cancer, and so all bets are off / 'cause I can't compete with that," he sings in his typically satirical manner.
Grant has explained that "grey tickles" is a direct translation of the Icelandic term for a mid-life crisis, and "black pressure" from the Turkish term for "nightmare." That he codifies the record's themes in this way allows Grant to explore the ways in which issues of mental health are often viewed through a lens of euphemism - trivialised and invalidated by the dismissive way in which they're often discussed.
That's not to say that Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is all doom and gloom. The lush cabaret sound of the title track - awash with strings and a chamber choir - gives way to the spring-loaded electronics and the irony-dripping spoken monologue of "Snug Slacks." Often Grant's sonic adventurousness recalls The Magnetic Fields frontman Stephen Merritt - equally informed by both Busby Berkeley theatricality and David Byrne anxiety.
Despite the shifts in sound that take place throughout the record, it remains consistent and never falls into the trap of over-indulgence. Grant knows exactly when to embellish songs and when to hold back. There are elements of canned rock music, analogue indie-pop synthesizers approximating tortured funk, and gorgeous chamber pop touches. His lyrics are so loaded and full of detail, that if the music were similarly embellished, the record would become overwhelming and tiring. As it is, though, it is a consistently engaging listen from beginning to end.
Often Grant is playing a character. On the murky rocker "You & Him," he affects a boorish, accented voice spewing hyperbolic criticism, but despite the over-the-top nature of the character, there is still a sense of realism to every word. We know people like that, and we know how it feels to be told that the way you lead your life is somehow incorrect or inadequate. Later, on the tongue-in-cheek ballad "Global Warming," he eloquently evokes comical self-centredness ("Global warming is ruining my fair complexion...") that alarmingly may hit a little close to home.
Grey Tickles, Black Pressure also has sublime moments of sincerity. "Down Here" is as honest a performance of contemporary ennui and search for meaning as you're likely to find, coloured with acoustic guitar and bass clarinet, and "Disappointing," a collaboration with former Everything But the Girl singer Tracey Thorn is a love song presented as post-modern disco that reads like an admission of emotional weakness for the highbrow literati.
At nearly an hour in length, this is a long album stuffed to the brim with ideas. Not everything will immediately draw you in, and perhaps it does lose some steam by the time the final song rolls around, but given the time it is easy to appreciate this as one of the most honest and modern singer-songwriter records to come out this year. John Grant is a talented and distinctive musician with something important and life-affirming to say and an interesting way of saying it. You can't ask for much more than that.
Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is out today on CD, vinyl and digital formats.