It’s easy to say that David Gray’s latest set Mutineers is the kind of follow-up to 1998’s smash White Ladder for which longtime fans have been waiting some 16 years. Yet despite common perception, sometimes the easiest observations are also the most accurate, and through each listen of the 11 songs that paint Gray’s first album in four years, it’s almost impossible not to flash on a lot of the tracks that propelled the English songwriter into a furry of worldwide fame back before Y2K was even a thing.
Lead single “Back in the World” is how “Please Forgive Me” and “Babylon” would sound if they had a kid. “Beautiful Agony” is “This Year’s Love” re-imagined with less optimism. Where 2009’s Draw the Line felt like a play for relevance in a piano-driven Top 40 world, and its follow-up, 2010’s Foundling, failed to find the middle ground between complete sparsity and oversized production, Mutineers is the most comfortable Gray has sounded in years. That new day didn’t come at midnight; it came more than 15 years later.
How so? Well, with the intervening time between his most successful release and the one at hand, David Gray felt like an artist unsure of how to grow, how to confront the expectation thrusted upon him in the wake of his unexpected and undeniable commercial success. Sure, he enjoyed some of his best moments throughout those years—single “Fugitive” was as perfect as his brand of folk-pop can get while “Forgetting” is still a haunting listen even to this day, but they came at the expense of his own self-doubt. Each move came across as something he felt he should do as an artist rather than something he felt he wanted to do as an artist.
Or in other words, if you want to abandon all memory of your trip-pop days, write “Jackdaw”.
On Mutineers, however, the singer embraces those roots with the help of Lamb’s Andy Barlow, whose electronica experience and expertise fits around Gray’s flirtation with the approach like a Silver Lining in the twilight. The best result of the collaboration comes in the form of “As the Crow Flies”, an inescapably complete song that has all the elements of Great David Gray: A drum machine that morphs into an up-tempo live kit, nearly a minute of introductory melancholy piano, and, of course, a hook that accidentally sticks in your head beyond the first or eighth listen.“There’s no doubt left in my mind, I feel like I’m singing straight from the heart again and I’ve got back to the source of my music,” he told the Belfast Telegraph earlier this month, and “Crow” is living proof of as much.
But so is “Back in the World” and the set’s title track, a glowing piece of composition that works its way backwards from initially exhilarating to steadily groovy. It’s a neat little trick to hear the singer pull off, as the song’s beginning feels like the upward motion of a roller-coaster, its repetitiously bright melody building consistently as Gray explains how he’s “trying to shake the monkey off my back”. “Back in the World”, meanwhile, sounds like the purest form of pop music liberation. Eased in by an alternating piano, the single eventually erupts into a type of energy that hasn’t been seen on a David Gray record since “Please Forgive Me” strutted its way across neo-folk dance floors everywhere. The “I’m naked like a tree / It’s the only way to be” refrain that carries the tune over the finish line sets listeners up accurately for what type of journey on which they are about to embark.
In fact, that emancipatory outlook allows for a type of fun that’s rarely been seen from the Englishman in previous outings. “Snow in Vegas”, while cheerfully morose (remember: This is a David Gray record, after all), showcases a type of unique exuberance that’s both refreshing and welcome, despite its somewhat predictable formula. Better yet is the bridge that opens up to the unexpectedly delightful line, “If I had a million dollars / I’d blow it on champagne.” For a guy who’s spent a lot of his time swimming in serious waters, such a shallow stroke is strangely satisfying. So much so that by the time the charming “Cake and Eat It” comes around, it’s impossible to dismiss, despite how nonsensical its premise sounds at first listen.
And in reality, that’s the true victory at the heart of Mutineers: Deliverance. This being the singer’s tenth album, David Gray presents himself as a complete man with these 11 songs, but more importantly, he also accurately conveys the notion that he’s completely at ease. So, yeah. Maybe the type of follow-up to White Ladder we always hoped we would get 16 years ago didn’t come until 2014. But as the guy says himself on this latest, near-excellent record, he wants all his cake and he wants to eat it, too. More than two decades into his career, Mutineers suggests that David Gray might finally be full.