David Gray - Draw the Line
It can’t be easy. Public image, a cocktail that comes spiked with all manner of nasties, can floor you if you’re not careful. Poor David Gray. You’d think selling a couple of million copies of your ‘breakthrough’ album was a crime worthy of prosecution in the Hague the way the groovy gang mock ‘White Ladder’ and its subsequent stranglehold on the charts at the turn of the decade. (Heck, turn of the century.) But Gray is undeserving of such dumb disdain. The trick for those of us with an ounce of sense is to dismiss surface fripperies and take note of the gulf that exists across the coffee table. For every ‘No Angel’ there’s a ‘Back to Black’ and, yes, for every ‘Back To Bedlam’ there’s a ‘White Ladder’.
The advance word this time around is that Gray is revitalised and ready to fire it up after a lengthy period of navel gazing. Good news. Despite the generally cold response to ‘White Ladder’ follow-up ‘A New Day at Midnight’, I thought it smartly managed the transition from bedroom lo-fi to suitcases-of-cash production. I had less time for its successor ‘Life in Slow Motion’; Gray’s last album was too shiny by far and the songs eventually disappeared under the weight of the arrangements. Thrilling to report, then, that ‘Draw the Line’, spare, unadorned but far from spartan, is tremendous. It displays its author’s re-built muse with esprit and erudition. As he sings on the stirring title track “All this talk can hypnotize you and we can ill afford/To give ourselves to sentiment when our time is oh so short/There are names beneath the lichen on these cemetery stones/And carnivals of silverfish waiting to dance upon our bones.” In other words, get up and get the f*** on with your life. I’ll drink to that.
All said, with no real expectations beforehand, it’s gratifying to feel even vaguely excited about David Gray again. He’s too gifted a songwriter to not expect him to hit pay dirt again at some point and far too compelling an artist to dismiss lightly. (Though I’ve come close, walking out of a show on his ‘Greatest Hits’ tour a couple of years ago, uncomfortable and bored after less than an hour.) But ‘Draw the Line’ is more than enough to re-heat the goodwill. What further warms the cockles is a bagful of tunes that shimmer and soar and a lyrical tenor that outshines the rag bag of semi-literate pretenders the usual suspects lazily hold up as vital. I doubt your Penate or your Doherty could deliver some of the lyrical acumen that ‘Draw the Line’ tosses off with abundant ease. On the brooding ‘Nemesis’, a troubling ode to those night-time voices of doubt that assail us all, Gray sings “I’m the thoughts you’re too ashamed to share/And I am the smell … you’re trying to wash out of your hair.” Which he betters a verse later with “I am your one true love who sleeps with someone else/I am your nemesis, baby I’m sweet life itself.” Holy moly. I could go on. Hey, let’s. Love the bit on ‘First Chance’ when it’s skyward chorus gives way to “Moses had his tablets yeah, Noah had his ark/All I’ve got’s a haystack needle stabbing in the dark.” Apart from the wit, the inflamed passions of his penetrating poetics, there’s a delicious inscrutability to the storytelling. Work, dear listener, work. Another rebuff to those who mock Gray’s crossover appeal – as on ‘White Ladder’ (“What’re we gonna do when the money runs out”, anyone ?), Gray’s musings are often of the darkest kind. Couching them in language that often leaves a clear narrative tantalisingly out of reach only adds to the allure.
Enough. You’ll think I’ve actually listened to the damn thing if I carry on. Suffice to say, ‘Harder’ comes over all Jackson Browne, cruising with those trademark West Coast progressions and ‘Transformation’ is the kind of darkly gospel hymnal a pairing of Cave and Oldham might concoct. On a dark night. After a few. Annie Lennox, previously indicted by this court for defaming Ash’s ‘Shining Light’, is forgiven; her part in the closing ‘Full Steam’ enough to get her off. (Just.)
Overall, a dark and bitter joy. You write ‘em off, they slap you down. Only just into his forties, maybe it’s no great disaster that Gray has taken ten years to give ‘White Ladder’ a run for its money. If anything, ‘Draw the Line’ acts as a gauge to allow, long past the hype and bluster, an informed re-appraisal of that record, and realise that not only do the Great British Public sometimes get it beautifully, alarmingly right, but that kicking a dog when it's down has never really been that smart.