As much as I love metal and pretty much all rhythmic, guitar-driven music, sometimes I need to summon my inner bunny and retreat into more soothing, thoughtful, and melodic pastures. Lately I just can't stop listening to David Gray.
I have long been enamored of the music from this pasty, scratchy voiced folkie from the UK. I just am. Like haggis and Lars von Trier films, he's not for everybody. I'd say he falls somewhere between "indie" and "cult-like," which simply means only a small percentage of music lovers recognize his brilliance. So I'll call him "indie-like."
I first got turned on to him by a girl who spent the better part of a year treating my black little heart like a squirrel treats a walnut. I was whipped worse than Dred Scott at his homecoming party. If she had wanted me to punch out a pre-schooler, I would have gladly beaten him up and made his little pre-school girlfriend hold his lunchbox while I did it. It was not good. But, it was she who introduced me to the song "Babylon," which lit my fire as very few songs ever have.
It began when she popped by my apartment and said that she'd just come out of a spinning class, during which the instructor played this song called "Babylon," which she really liked. That, in and of itself, captured my attention because as a "little thing guy" (a guy who attempts to disarm girls with a series of small, thoughtful gestures to showcase how keenly he pays attention to them), I needed to know what turned her on.
As a side note to the parenthetical tangent, the whole goal of a "little thing guy" is for the girl to experience a perfectly orchestrated epiphany, wherein the guy she actually likes is revealed to be a total dick, while at the same moment she looks around the room and sees some little trinket the "little thing guy" got her, causing her to suddenly realize that "little thing guy," is in fact the man of her dreams, and spurring her to then hop in the car in the pouring rain, and race to "little thing guy's" apartment to profess both her love of "little thing guy" and her foolishness for ever liking the guy who's really a dick. This scenario has never ever happened in real life, to any "little thing guy." Yet we plod on...
Back to my apartment, post-spinning class. Said girl suggested to me, "You should play ["Babylon"] on guitar." Bingo. In my mind, I whipped up this fantasy of us sitting in some Turkish-themed den, sitting on big pillows and gazing at each other across the light of a candle, with me breaking out my Taylor and shattering her world with my rendition of that song. I think in my fantasy my voice probably sounded a lot better than it actually was. In fact, I would not be surprised if the Joe in my fantasy sounded more like Robbie Williams than Joe.
Anyhoo, my BFF Steve Poltz eventually walked me through a couple of the nuances of the song during one of my visits to San Diego. I learned the ever loving shit out of the song, but of course, chickened out on ever playing it for her, citing guitar problems, head colds, and a long stream of excuses. Honestly, I don't think she really cared. At all.
However, I did score two David Gray tickets for us when he played Chicago's Vic Theater. It was awesome. We stood off to the side of the stage were astounded by his live show. His music, quiet and thoughtful, took on a larger than life, explosive vibe that had the Vic shaking. The crowd sang, David Gray's skin was typically pasty, and his drummer was sublime, rattling off complex poly rhythms that sent the entire house off into space. David was ridiculously cool. He was everything that his album covers suggest- quiet, self-deprecating, sincere, and just a bit pissy.
He sang the up tempo songs (like "Babylon") at slowed down paces and turned his slower numbers into long, towering jams. I never thought I would see five thousand people dancing to David Gray, but that's what happened.
And in one of those lifelong awkward moments (those harmless little awkward decisions you make that cause you to physically crumple a bit when you recall them for the rest of your life), I invited her to slow dance during "Say Hello Wave Goodbye." Immediately upon sliding my arms around her waist, I realized that the little argument that we had before the show, that I thought had been resolved, was in fact, still alive and well. Her distaste was palpable in the way she stared off and looked at the wall while we danced. So halfway through the song we pulled apart awkwardly and I stared at the drummer, hoping that if he hit the drums fast enough, we could all time travel back to the point where I could rethink my decision to slow dance with an angry woman.
So yeah, the whole "White Ladder" album (on which "Babylon" appears), is spectacular. His voice is um... "distinct." Look, he's no Pavarotti. Hell, he's no Susan Boyle. In fact, I'd wager that back in the day, when he'd stand up for his turn at a pub sing along, you'd see a lot of people heading up to the bar for a fresh pint and a bag of crisps.
But like so many other musicians with equally ordinary voices, he has created a musical style that suits him. From his intellectual lyrical patterns to the seamless mix of folk and electronica, he has created a vehicle that many inhabit, but few truly own. In fact, I'll bet trained singers would sound like crap if they tried one of his tunes on for size. He looks, dresses, and sings like the Everyman, and his voice is its perfect expression. His limitations are his charm. I relate to his cracked confessional style far more deeply than anything from some golden throated warbler like Frank Sinatra.
There are no bad tunes on "White Ladder." Not one. The arrangements are sparse and delicate, and to listen to the album on ass-kickingly good speakers is to fully appreciate its brilliance. I want to point out two or three that I really like, but I dig the whole thing. OK, fine: "Nightblindness," "Say Hello Wave Goodbye," "Silver Lining," and "Babylon" all stand out as personal favorites. I feel like Meryl Streep in "Sophie's Choice"...
After "White Ladder" broke, the money boys at the labels greedily returned to the three albums he had previously released (and which they had previously ignored), and thus began the Parade of Repackaging. It was gross. You couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting some "demo" of "Babylon" or some "alternate version" of "Sail Away." They dusted off and re-released songs best left where they were, and for awhile, we all wondered if maybe "White Ladder" should have been more appropriately called "Black Swan."
Then in 2005, he released "Life in Slow Motion," which reminded me why I kept listening to him. "Life" was his first collection of new tunes in a number of years, and the production leaned more heavily towards... well, more production. But not too much. Surprisingly, while the guitar was not as prominently featured as it was on "White Ladder," I loved the album even more. Now, before you folkie snobs sigh loudly and head back over to your Richard Thompson discussion boards, there's still ass-loads of good guitar on "Life." It's just got a little more keyboard. Geez, get over yourselves...
In December of 2005, when I got this album, I was on my last legs. Everything in my world was crashing down around me, and as my first Christmas in San Diego approached, my world was surreal in its desperation. I was deep in isolation, watching my relationship fall apart, my health fade away, and my job situation reaching critical mass. Were it not for the constant presence, love, and sincerity of my three dogs, I might have imploded under the weight of it all.
My then-girlfriend had absconded to Mexico for a family wedding, to which I was not invited. Later reflection has led me to the conclusion that there was a direct correlation between my lack of invitation to this wedding and my rather pugnacious conduct at another wedding some months before. And so I found myself alone in the days approaching Christmas, driving around the paradise of La Jolla, with its paradoxical warm sunny weather and snow-themed ornaments.
The only thing I was listening to that month was "Life in Motion." The first hit, "The One I Love," w is a powerful, jumpy, beautiful love song. I listened to it with a mixture of excitement at how great the song was, and regret, as I wished that I myself felt that way about someone. It made me wish I were back in those throes of early love, when reckless abandon was the only rule worth observing. I loved my girlfriend, but the days of hope had long snuck out the backdoor.
"Hospital Food" was the other song that really shook me into rapt attention. It really showcases how he takes his flat, unremarkable voice and uses different phrasings to make it shine. The bridge still kills me and back then, it hit me like a NASCAR driver going through the fence at 200 mph.
"Seeing it all so beautiful
The way it oughta be
Seeing it all so beautiful
And turning away
The rest of the album is solid, although in this effort, there are a couple that don't resonate with me as much as the others. Still, I can and do listen to it beginning to end, nonstop. It never gets old. In fact, I find something new everytime I hear it. It's like the Benjamin Button of folk albums. Yes, I know I just called it "folk." Shut up.
His lyrics evoke poetry rather than irony, which is a pretty neat trick these days. Irony has become a cheap, tired, and overused safety net for lyricists who are incapable of saying who they are and what they feel. So they tell you what they're not and then paint the picture with overdone metaphors that come off like twinkies- sweet and forgettable.
But irony makes people feel smart because they see through to the underlying (and always obvious) meaning, so it appeals to the jaded, the disenfranchised, and the under 16. When used by guys like Neil Young, irony cuts like a sabre. When used by the guys in Blink-182, it sounds like a video game commercial.
This diatribe has been brought to you by Eastern Airlines and Turtle Wax.
My point is that David Gray does not go for the easy lyrical play. He doesn't just rattle off half-baked metaphors and he's not interested in sounding clever. He chooses his words like great cooks choose their tomatoes.
David Gray sings about his feelings without indulgence. His songs are wistful, yet not morose. He does not dumb anything down for the listener, and his lyrics they serve his style with unflinching deference. He's one of the few artists I listen to where I still sit down and read the lyrics and liner notes.
This year he released "Draw the Line," to mixed reviews. I tend to agree that more is less when it comes to David Gray. When I first heard the single "Fugitive," I thought that perhaps his shark had been jumped, and like I've done with so many albums, I turned it off after one absent-minded listen, assuming I'd never return to it.
That was back in September, just after the album was released. Then a couple weeks ago, I remembered that I had downloaded "Draw the Line" and that I hadn't really given it the attention that perhaps it deserved. And so I sat down and pressed play. I was ecstatic to realize that like a bottle of California red, the album just needed a little time. Ok, I needed just a little time to settle myself and come around for the album.
"Nemesis" was what did it for me. The simple, childlike melody that begins the song quite literally made me stop what I was doing and look at the stereo, as if David Gray might pop out and say, "See what you've been missing, jackass?" It is simply beautiful.
I won't do a track by track review. I've already written far too much (and if you're still with me here, thanks!). But like "Life in Slow Motion," it's got its weak spots, although they are far outweighed by the high points: "Nemesis," "Jackdaw," "Fugitive" (yes, it's grown on me), and "Stella the Artist" all stand out for me.
The nice surprise with the new album is that it comes in a Deluxe Edition, which includes a bunch of live tracks that are stellar reminders of how exciting his live performances are. It was nice to enjoy the music without the morbid embarrassment of an ill-advised slow dance. It was just nice to hear him reinterpret his classics. The album kicks ass, the music will not let you down, and at the end of the day, when you buy a record, that's all that matters.