John Grant’s latest album, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, became a hit last year in the same vein as Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear, both records contrasting a pure, folk-singer voice and soft-rock arrangements with ironic and expletive lyrics, black humour and self-deprecation.
While it’s always clear that Josh Tillman is playing a persona – that of a ‘massive deranged schmaltz’ – as Father John Misty on Honeybear, we’re aware with John Grant that his admissions are frank and honest, and relate to a very real personal history of struggles with HIV, with depression, with alcohol and drug addiction, and difficulties coming to terms with being gay.
Despite this real, honest context for Grant’s songs, tonight in a packed Royal Concert Hall, there’s a cheap theatricality and a nauseating earnestness that pervades the music.
On the album, the ‘grey tickles and black pressure’ of a midlife crisis are consciously not epic themes (as Grant appreciates, other peoples’ problems trump his: “there are children who have cancer… I can’t compete with that”), and the songs avoid being overly sincere by flitting between humour and pain.
But the show is all piano flourishes, dramatic pauses, histrionic changes of pace, and showy lighting; Grant’s FM radio-croon is contained on the record, but in concert, its emotional extravagances are exposed and utilised in full.
I realise as the show progresses that the elements of eccentricity that played out on the record as echoes of art-rock weirdos – Bowie, Beck, Lou Reed, David Byrne, Ariel Pink – come across in live performance as aspects drawn from musical theatre, or from stadium rock.
And whereas on record, the maxims of ‘Glacier’ could come across as quirky, here they feel horribly didactic: as in “what they want is commonly referred to as theocracy /and what that boils down to is referred to as hypocrisy”, or the ironically preachy “don’t listen to anyone, get answers on your own”.
The moments of fun come too late, and the grunge-rock of ‘You and Him’, the electronica of ‘Disappointing’ and lo-fi funk of ‘Voodoo Doll’ can’t save a two-hour set that is terribly earnest for far too long.
Words: Tony Boardman