The aftermath of Sell, Sell, Sell was being dropped by EMI after non-existent sales and a calamitous American tour (one gig was actually seen by no people, after everyone decamped to a nearby bar after the local support band), and four years in the wilderness with no income and, if rumours are true, cocaine and marriage problems.
In defence of David Gray
I have a theory that runs as follows; all popular music is divided into two categories of musical and lyrical substance – escape and reality. The former category consists of bands which provide with their records an opportunity to avoid the rigours of real life for forty or so minutes, who appeal to people by giving them an escape route from the day-to-day rigmarole of work. Escapist bands are bands like Oasis and The Strokes, and are more likely to be powerfully produced, bombastic and "fun". The latter category involves artists who deal not with escaping from reality but dealing with it. They sing about the better and worse times, and attempt to sell records by striking a direct chord with a listener. They tend to be more downbeat, less bombastic, less "fun", but far more emotional and powerful, if not in production then in content. Of the latter, David Gray is at once amongst the most successful and the most reviled. Ten million worldwide album sales to date have not prevented Gray from frequently becoming the brunt of music snobs' jokes and having to put up with accusations of being dull, monotonous and insipid. However what his legions of fans know (and contrary to a certain received wisdom his sales do not lie solely within the "housewife" demographic) is that Gray is an artist who over 12 years in the music industry has demonstrated time and time again that he has the ability to remodel his music and to take the art of the singer-songwriter into unexplored territory, as well as writing pop ballads that deal with the realities of almost every aspect of normal life, from unpaid bills to unrequited love. To those willing to take the plunge, there is far more to David Gray than a Van Morrison copyist with a synthesiser and White Ladder.
A Century Ends
Virgin Hut Recordings, 1993
Gray's debut album is to say the least a world away from the album that would make him famous. Here the music is rather closer to Bob Dylan or even Billy Bragg than the style he would exhibit while dominating the charts – a mixture of furious folk-rock and the Celtic-tinged romanticism that would become Gray's trademark over the next few years, and lead to a base of success in Ireland that would give him the grounding and momentum he needed to reach the White Ladder stage in the first place. The opening song would be the one that made his name over the Irish Sea, when it was used by DJ Donal Dineen on RTE's 'No Disco' show. Shine was a downbeat lament to a lost love that blossomed gradually into a powerful emotive display, as well as a good watermark for Gray's oranate lyricism – "Remember your soul is the one thing you can't compromise" was typical of the conviction and directness of his lyrics. Augmenting the plaintive music was a far more wonderful instrument that he could ever pick up and play, his bellowing and brazenly heartfelt voice. Though they would become familiar in a more restrained form, here the vocals were raw and tore through the tracks with an astonishing power very few singers have ever matched. Shine is in fact an excellent point of reference for his first two albums' worth of material and the style of simple strumming matched with clever wordplay is a constant theme throughout his career. Aside from that, it's an incredible song, one of many on this set.
The style flickered between the bulgy-veined balladry of the opening track and a far more caustic form of folk-ish angst, the title track in particular being a full-band trashing of Americanism and shallowness, while that song was followed by the brash romance of Debauchery, a marked contrast but without any compromise of substance. Gray's skill as a lyricist applied equally to both sides of the musical coin and he could capture a listener's imagination just as well by rueing that "she asked me for the truth one time and all I did was lie" on Lead Me Upstairs as by railing against "a hollow people bound by a lack/Of imagination and too much looking back" as he does on his debut single Birds Without Wings, itself the greatest exponent of Gray's tendency towards intricate words matched with simple and stripped down backing – on this occasion the only accompaniment is one acoustic guitar playing two chords. The effect, however, was startling.
While in later years Gray would be praised by some critics mainly for other aspects of his oeuvre, it does not do to forget that at the heart of his music is a powerful simplicity and immediacy that makes up for a significant part of his ability to warm a listener's heart. This was occasionally ridiculously straight forward music that required no bells or whistles to make it into a classic record, and it is notable that many of Gray's weaker tracks in the future would be the occasional songs that could be accused of frippery. At his best, Gray would need and use no bombast, no big studio production and no over-the-top backing to produce his music, and this is a major part of what makes him records so direct and what gives them such a strong emotional appeal to those who hear them.
Virgin Hut Recordings, 1994
Despite the deserved critical praise garnered by his debut LP (even Radiohead listed it as one of their all-time favourite albums in Melody Maker), it failed to take off in the UK (or anywhere except Ireland, for that matter, and even there he was a cult figure only), and when his sophomore effort failed to hit quite the same marks with the journalists, it dropped off the face of the planet – which is something of a shame, as while this is definitely a less consistent piece of work, it still has moments which easily stand up today. The opener, What Are You? may have indicated a return to the fury of many of his previous tracks but actually lead in to a far more mellow and romantic set, which Gray's marriage to his wife Olivia probably inspired. The Van Morrison worship Gray frequently admitted to was at its most evident, Falling Free conjuring up hints of that great artist's Into The Mystic era. But where his previous efforts at writing love songs all came up trumps, here a certain power was lacking and certain songs such as The Mystery Of Love lack that extra punch that was so obvious on A Century Ends.
The wordiness was still present and correct (if anything more so) and when he growls that "this ain't no pale reflection, this is the real thing" on New Horizons it's certainly not difficult to believe, as that remarkable immediacy that lies at the heart of all the best things Gray does comes to the fore once again. However the gentle air of romance is rather spoiled by some definite misfires, most notably Love's Old Song, a dire pub rock dirge which Gray himself would later admit as a disaster. The faint Celtic hints which had been notable on his previous album were also more blatant here, many songs dragging mandolins along with their tips of the hat to Van Morrison. This is perhaps the most unique aspect to Flesh, as there was little attempt at originality, or, to be truthful, much change in direction to his debut. But there were a couple of times when Gray excelled himself – the closing title track is a tremendous track with clever use of repeated chords which fades out in a typically Gray-esque "na na na na" fashion. Coming Down is even better, an epic achievement of direct and simple song-writing arguably unequalled in Gray's career. Over six minutes Gray pounds out the emotions with the chords, howling at "the frozen stars above me/Mingled with the blood inside my veins". It's breathless and beautiful, a great centrepiece to a partially great album.
Sell, Sell, Sell
EMI Recordings, 1995
Having been dropped by Hut, it must have been quite delightful for Gray to find EMI waiting in the wings with promises of American conquest. Less delightful to Gray, however, was the constant interference in the production process that marred a record which could have been great. It was never going to break the US though, as far more of Gray's healthy cynicism was present from the title onwards, and though token efforts at pop were made, the FM rock openers of Faster, Sooner, Now and Late Night Radio most obviously pretending to a chart position, this was a record which flickered between a whole range of styles, the bombastic full-band blasting of the aforementioned (and actually truly excellent) tracks being followed variously by bucolic folk-rock - Forever Is Tomorrow Is Today - almost a cappella dirges (Smile) and seething angst (the title track). This new rock persona may not seem like a vast step in a new direction but the difference in tone and tenor from Flesh is palpable and gives Sell, Sell, Sell an energy that his previous record lacked. However, a mixture of writer's block and the abortive sessions (overseen disastrously by Grant Lee Phillips) lead to some rather lacking songs, and occasional lyrical lapses – What Am I Doing Wrong? has a strong, if standard, rock tune but lacks totally in the lyrical intelligence usually so characteristic of Gray's work, while the lyric on otherwise brilliant Forever Is Tomorrow Is Today "trash the future, violence doesn't suit you" is little more telling than a Girls Aloud lyric (I like Girls Aloud –ed).
The end product was again a little varied, as if the songs were there but somehow things didn't quite fall in to place. On the other hand, it has, like Flesh, got a string of spectacular moments, Late Night Radio being perhaps the most obvious but also matched by the beautiful and strangely aggressive closing track (played mostly on Wurlitzer) Folk Song and the gentle acoustic lament Gutters Full Of Rain, where the lyrical genius is back in full force ("light another cigarette/But the one I've got's still lit/Can't seem to keep my fingers steady"). The aftermath of Sell, Sell, Sell was being dropped by EMI after non-existent sales and a calamitous American tour (one gig was actually seen by no people, after everyone decamped to a nearby bar once the local support band finished), and four years in the wilderness with no income and, if rumours are true, cocaine and marriage problems. It would be a long time before he re-emerged as a different man and a different musician, but while Sell, Sell, Sell marks the end of his first songwriting era it's still another indicator of his talent – even his very weakest moments on this album bear repeat listens and if the attempt to appeal to a wider audience may have lost a little of the strength of the music beneath all the electric guitars, the combination of strong lyrics and his immense voice mean that Gray delivers frequently inspiring and always potent music.
iht Records, 1999
By 1998, Gray had got back on the straight and narrow and found himself faced with a simple choice – pack it all in and become a milkman, or have one last throw of the musical dice. He chose the latter, recording a set of tracks in a bedroom in a terraced house with no producer and traffic noises coming in from the window. He had no record contract and was forced to release only 1000 copies in Ireland alone, all he could afford. By the turn of the millennium he was one of the biggest artists in the UK, having sold millions of copies of White Ladder, a true classic of suburban boredom.
Swapping the guitars and full bands for downbeat synthesisers and pianos, the change in direction was drastic, and the production qualities simply non-existent – it could easily have been a disaster but instead it was masterpiece of innovation and potent song-writing. The unique aspect of the record was the blend of the standard song-writing forms exemplified on his previous releases and a far more contemporary, electronica-tinged styling used on most of the tracks (most notably Please Forgive Me, which ends in an almost languid disco beat). It was a successful combination to say the least, the single Babylon becoming his first massive chart hit, but despite the album being very downbeat for a large portion of its length, White Ladder sold hugely, if gradually.
A large part of its enduring appeal is the way in which it catalogues and deals with everyday problems – the beautiful, melancholy Nightblindness has Gray asking "What we gonna do/When the money runs out?", the oddly jaunty We're Not Right tackles alcoholism over a backdrop of squelching bass and the strummy My Oh My, while by far the track most reminiscent of his older work with its droning strum, is an ice-cold anthem to frustration. It was perhaps that these songs came from Gray's heart in a direct way that most writers would be incapable of that renders them so powerful – Gray not only understood what it was to be another normal person in a difficult world, he was one, and this gives each of the songs a disarming authenticity. While he slipped back into a more straightforward musical mode for a few tracks, notably the singles Sail Away and This Years Love, this was certainly an album where Gray was pushing the envelope of popular music into unknown regions. He was altering his own lyrical style as well – instead of the ornate wordiness that had been the trademark of the earlier records, the writing was much more sparse and direct, and stripped down of complexity the honesty in his words is much plainer. On Silver Lining in particular there are far fewer words in the way of the meaning, especially when the length of the song is considered.
Overall White Ladder firmly deserved the praise it received (and Gray's subsequent nomination for Q's Innovation Award was no mistake either) as well as the millions of shifted units it engendered – in music there are still very few, if any records, that can match its range and quality of song-writing and startling empathy with the rigours of modern life. This was the record that most of all would mark down Gray's talent for all forms of writing, his brazen emotional power, his inventive genius and his vibrant musicianship, and album that provided many with comfort through what journalist Pat Roach perfectly described as "coffee-table therapy amidst the soggy joints, unpaid bills and glasses of chardonnay". This is the album which details and documents the day-to-day lives of millions of people, and as such has an appeal which will endure as long as we have bills to pay and loves to lose.
Lost Songs 95-98
iht Records, 2001
Released in the aftermath of White Ladder's enormous success, Lost Songs was a collection of tracks written and unreleased during the gap between Sell, Sell, Sell and his eventual discovery of fame and fortune. The tone is very much a return to the A Century Ends period, but the anger and full bands once again take a back seat to a set of love songs so sparse in their instrumentalisation that some tracks, Twilight especially, are practically a capella. As with its predecessor the bare style of the tracks lends the album a great poency, albeit in this case with the sequencers and the imagination which White Ladder was infused with removed. Instead the chief accompaniment to the lyrics (which show the gradual progression between the intellectual wordplay of his first releases and the considered writing of White Ladder, being a middle ground between the two) was again the acoustic guitar, with occasional uses of the backing band (only the fine A Clean Pair Of Eyes really makes total use of the full range of instruments at Gray's disposal).
While this album would not have the importance of the previous effort, it is still another showcase for his remarkable talent, his voice again at its most powerful, whether he's crooning through Hold On and its gentle minimalism or growling through the intense dirge of Falling Down The Mountainside. Perhaps most importantly, Lost Songs is another indicator of Gray's career-long refusal to stick to one playing style. It's this facet of his personality that makes his music constantly refreshing, interesting and powerful – never in his back catalogue to date has the music ever become monotonous in its repetition, which helps each individual record to stand up on its own, each unable to be overshadowed by another because each remains apart from the others as a different record played and recorded in a different style. Despite Gray's occasional misfires, he always maintains an edge over other artists through his personal reinventions.
A New Day At Midnight
iht Records, 2002
Gray had never been faced with the challenge of repeating a success before, and whether it was that or another problem which afflicted him at this stage in his career, A New Day At Midnight is by a very long way his most forgettable, uninteresting and simply low quality work. It was an effort to make a pop record proper, unlike White Ladder which was simply pop music by dint of record sales. While there are good moments, Gray's muse certainly failed him on many tracks – Knowhere is almost difficult to recall even after many listens, so unremarkable is it, and Kangaroo is just a stream of gibberish which makes a mockery of his usually dependable lyrical excellence. There are constant errors made in attempting to inject a sense of fun into many songs, Caroline in particular only grating with its samples of comedy Wild West sound effects and whooping. There are times when the pop formula comes up trumps, and though Be Mine may be marred by a terrible harmony part at its close, it packs enough of a pop punch to be effective.
But it is no coincidence that by far the best songs come from the more emotional and downbeat parts of the album – the death of Gray's father inspires a handful of songs which stand out – the opening Dead In The Water is a downcast pop masterpiece with a varying style for each verse, Freedom is perhaps too long but far more powerful lyrically and musically than anything else on the album. However, with Gray's noble attempt to create a pop record came the compromise of lowered lyrical standards and a total lack of emotional contact in the vast majority of the tracks. It was an abortive try at a different slant at his career but it was simply one he failed to pull off. Sales were still healthy but it failed to replicate White Ladder's success or acclaim, and remains his least worthwhile long player, albeit an album which still demonstrated his will to change his style as often as possible.
Life In Slow Motion
iht Records, 2005
After A New Day At Midnight's musical plane crash, it was vital for Gray to bounce back with a first rate record. When early listens indicated the influence of Sigur Ros and Rufus Wainwright, it may have been tempting to become concerned that with White Ladder Gray's genius had vanished, (oopfh! – ed) but happily this is a truly outstanding album, perhaps his very best. Starting with the atmospheric and glacial dirge Alibi, Life In Slow Motion's colours were revealed when the full band kicked in to provide the song with a glorious, soaring finale with an almost Broadway touch. Even with the record showing a wildly differing slant from White Ladder this is another example of Gray's ability to mix pop music with intelligence and dark power.
Throughout this record the songs brood and sparkle at the same time; Nos Da Cariad punching out an almost brutal piano figure while harmonies and synthesisers warble in the background, The One I Love being a crystalline pop tune with its subject matter as the thoughts of a dying man. The lyrics were back at their best too, albeit in a more abstract form than was usually associated with his work. Gray's vocals were again out in force, this time with a far greater range of styles than he had ever used previously – From Here You Can Almost See The Sea features piercing high wails that press home the words with more impact than he had previously been able to achieve. This record was a real showcase for his quality and range of song-writing, using full orchestras on some tracks, while stripping things down to the bare minimum on tracks such as the outstanding piano ballad Ain't No Love. It is the clearest indication of the abilities of Gray as a writer, abilities often overlooked by those who seem to feel that a liking for his work is unfashionable. The closing ballad Disappearing World is one of his most beautiful works, a fitting close to a truly fine and remarkable set, as he croons "Night falling on the city/Quite something to behold/Don't it just look so pretty/This Disappearing World" over a quietly apocalyptic strain of strings and melancholy piano. Emotionally this is also his high watermark, an album that exemplifies each of the qualities he possesses in such high quantities.
Essentially, Gray is a troubadour writing simple songs with simple subjects. But it is his ability to produce astounding emotional impact through his lyrics and through the stark beauty and naked potency of his tracks that sets him apart from any other pop musican of his generation. Constantly reinventing his sound, where Gray takes his music next is simply impossible to guess, but a betting man would put their pennies on his next album maintaining the best qualities that form the core of his music while shifting the texture of the music around it. It's easy to dismiss Gray as dull or unexciting but this is simply the result of his refusal to offer escapism as a form of relief from his subject matter, and it is reality that is reflected in his music to an extent perhaps greater than any other artist that has ever picked up a guitar or sat down to a piano.