Before James Blunt and all those other melancholic males with guitars came a man from Manchester who played piano and penned some of the most memorable fin de siecle pop songs in the English language. With a surname almost anti-pop in its banality, David Gray bucked the system and made himself a star. But in a market saturated with his imitators, is there still room for the wobbly-headed troubadour once unkindly described as “the male Dido“?
Prior to knowing that Bjork‘s producer Marius DeVries was responsible for bringing Wales-based Gray’s latest set of songs into the public domain, it’s possible to guess it from the opening bars of Life In Slow Motion’s first track, Alibi.
Solitary guitar sits atop lushly melancholic strings, dramatic cymbal punctuations and synth bass in a piece that instantly sounds capable of suggesting itself to a soundtrack, even before heart strings are pulled further with piano and Gray’s braying voice. The sound he makes is still as uniquely recognisable as when White Ladder dominated the world.
Gray, for so long a fringe indie stalwart before that record’s stratospheric success, has for his seventh album made the step up from homespun, DIY bedroom studio recording to professional budget and world famous producer with considerable ease. Alibi, a song Gray describes as “Babylon part 2 but more abstract”, matches dramatic scoring to Gray’s voice and reflective, regretful lyrics perfectly. But this latest canon from Gray is far from a laugh a minute, and finds Gray in particularly downbeat mood throughout.
Lead single The One I Love, while memorable enough to succeed on radio and score a top 10 chart placing, doesn’t have the will-not-leave-your-brain quality of Sail Away or Babylon, or even This Year’s Love. But then those ditties weren’t sung from the point of view of a man bleeding to death. The One I Love is. Radio-friendly pop has rarely been thematically bleaker.
Nos Da Cariad (Goodnight Sweetheart), in its instrumentation and score, could pass for a Coldplay song until Gray begins singing, while Slow Motion really is… slow. And the chorus involves lots of braying.
This flags up what, for some tastes, is likely to be Life In Slow Motion’s irritant – that voice. Great for singing in a pub, undoubtedly, possibly even for attracting a barman’s attention when the tonsils need lubricating, but of less use when attempting to inject enough variety into an album’s worth of songs. Compelling to some, maddening to others, it should be said that at least Gray’s voice is tuneful.
From Here You Can Almost See The Sea and Ain’t No Love come from Gray’s soundtrack work for Amma Assante’s film A Way Of Life. The latter of the two’s piano part is an odd juxtaposition of rambling vocals over plodding, downtempo piano and needs a couple of listens to appreciate, while the former is one of the album’s more memorable pieces. More radio friendly is the bass-driven Hospital Food, as classy a single as Gray has written. Somewhere at its heart, amongst the singalong chorus and countrified beats, sits Lucinda Williams.
In what sounds like a deliberate attempt at variety from DeVries, Now And Always opens to the lashings of harmonica before paring back to more familiar, though abstract, piano and percussion, steadily building with lots of vocal tracks to an oddly satisfying conclusion.
Closer Disappearing World, which sounds like the perfect encore song, begins quietly with a repetitive piano and bass refrain before injecting those dramatic cymbals from Alibi, creating a windswept, bleak feel as he sings about a “leafless world” – indeed the song is one of the few on Life In Slow Motion with halfway memorable lyrics. Musically it’s a companion piece to Slow Motion until the astonishing mid-section – as big as a Pink Floyd or Coldplay anthem – before it tails back to the stark arrangement it began with.
White Ladder’s worldwide success was at least in part down to instantly memorable songs. Life In Slow Motion doesn’t have much in that instant anthem vein, but at least merits repeat hearings and works better as a whole album rather than a collection of singles. The head will wobble a while yet.