John Grant: Grey Tickles, Black Pressure

A masterfully sincere yet acerbic balladeer stretches himself a little thin on an otherwise strong album

Credit: Michael Berman

Some songwriters pen clever lyrics but vocalize them awkwardly, or compose intricate melodies yet package them in mundane arrangements. John Grant isn't like that. Possessed of a smooth but aching baritone, this Colorado-raised, Iceland-based expat evokes the lushest masters of Seventies rock while delivering sociological commentary and self-deprecating wit offset by dreamlike symphonic-synthetic splendor. Still relatively unknown in America, but justly lauded overseas, he's the gay Harry Nilsson of today — a disarmingly downhearted guy who excels at every element of singer-songwriter craft. 

But just as Nilsson often deviated from the balladry he did best, the ex-Czars frontman sometimes squanders his ample abilities on his third solo album. After a sweeping title track that conjures Dark Side of the Moon's luxurious drift to suggest the aimlessness of middle age, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure gets lost in three successive detours in which Grant lusts for randy barbarians. Having explored the same theme poignantly on "It Doesn't Matter to Him," from 2013's excellent Pale Green Ghosts, he simply takes potshots at huffy hunks on this album's "Snug Slacks," "Guess How I Know," and "You and Him," while St. Vincent producer John Congleton loads up Grant's atypically minimal melodies with brittle sonic trickery.

Past the similarly herky-jerk "Voodoo Doll," the rest of Grey Tickles returns to far more satisfying orchestral opulence and electronic drama. "Global Warming" ponders a damaged ecosystem that encourages "slack-jawed troglodytes to leave their homes with guns and knives/In search of quality refreshments and some homicide." For "Disappointing," Grant and Everything But the Girl's Tracey Thorn croon through an idiosyncratic list of their favorite things (bass clarinets, ocelot kittens and numerous SNL comediennes) as a slinky techno groove mutates into high-stepping jazz. Grey Tickles climaxes with "No More Tangles" and "Geraldine," a pair of classical-styled slow jams that juxtapose harmonic assuredness against suffocating fear. Grant knows both so well.