Seldom do I write a review in first person, for it automatically forfeits the appearance of objectivity, but David Gray is an artist that causes me to forfeit many of my hesitations. Like many, I learned about Gray when his 1999 album, White Ladder, was an underground phenomena, slowly gaining recognition and momentum on the recommendations of people who had enough faith to suggest a listen to their friends. I was ambivalent upon first listen; as someone who grew up on classic rock and bands that rejected synthesized music, I couldn’ t get into Gray’s use of synthesizers and computers. As the name of the instrumentation suggests, I thought White Ladder sounded synthetic, composite, and slightly plastic.
That was, anyways, my first impression. The more I listened to White Ladder, the more I realized that Gray could build just as sturdy a song with an acoustic guitar, a piano, and a computer in his bedroom as any other artist could in a studio with a full band. Featuring programmed elements or not, the songs on the album were also full of beautiful melodies, transcendent choruses, and something missing in much of today’s music—sincerity. After a while, I even learned to appreciate Gray’s folk-electronica, especially because he created it out of necessity when the record industry left his career for dead. Indeed, after a slow warming up, I became an unabashed David Gray fan, even if his songs might best be classified as “adult” alternative, dealing primarily with the themes of love and doubt and all those things kids seldom deal with on a realistic level.
In many ways, Life in Slow Motion, Gray’s 2005 album, is the response to and completion of White Ladder. While the latter is primarily romantically optimistic, the former is fraught with doubt and insecurity; only “The One I Love” is overwhelmingly hopeful, and it’s no surprise it was the only track to make it onto VH1, if only momentarily. For fans like me who have grown with Gray, these two albums present a whole , both of an artist and of what it means to mature and accept the realities of life—and how those realities affect one’s perception of love. If Gray was the naïve, starry-eyed romantic on White Ladder, he’s the older and wiser man who realizes that the reality is rarely as exciting as the daydream on Life in Slow Motion.
Perhaps it’s for that reason that Gray draws mainly from these two albums in Live in Slow Motion, a DVD capturing him in concert last year. Indeed, the concert is more a performance of those two albums than a comprehensive look at his career, but Gray did, after all, attract the most attention—both from the critics and the public at large—from White Ladder and Life in Slow Motion. All his more well-known songs are here, from “This Year’s Love” to “Babylon” to “The One I Love,” as well as the songs on those two LPs that made them albums in the true sense rather than a few single-worthy songs surrounded by filler. Recorded in Hammersmith during the Christmas season of 2005, this concert film offers the perfect mixture of music, mood, and ambiance, for Gray’s tales of seeking are particularly poignant when performed against the backdrop of the season when everyone pauses to reflect and take account of life. From the slow, languid notes of show-opener “Alibi,” the concert feels intimate and personal.
On stage, Gray prefers to allow the music to speak for itself, and does it ever speak. In between songs, Gray keeps the banter to a minimum, only occasionally addressing the audience, and looking rather shy when he does. When performing, however, Gray becomes a different person, dancing, gyrating, and smiling while performing upbeat songs, particularly during his cover of the Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love”. Music, obviously, is Gray’s preferred means of expressing himself, and while reserved as a person, he possesses an intensity that fills the room while playing. This is helped by his band, which is your standard rock setup augmented by a laptop, a piano, keys, and a cello player. Together, they are able to fill out Gray’s songs, making them sound even better live than on record. And, yes, as many Gray fans know, his drummer, the flashy and odd Clune, is somewhat distracting, but he is an amazing drummer.
Visually, Live in Slow Motion is striking. Directed by veteran music director Hamish Hamilton, the film puts the emphasis where it should be: on Gray and his band, not the audience. When Hamilton does show the audience, it’s usually from the perspective of the stage, with Gray in the foreground. This allows the viewer to focus on the concert rather than the audience’s reaction to it, and also allows the viewer to feel like someone in the audience, surrounded by the mood and music of the room. Moreover, Hamilton, perhaps best known for his work with U2 (though he’s worked with scores of bands), knows how to capture the emotional feel of a live performance, underscoring the dramatic tension with his camerawork: the shots are from natural angles, and the cuts are unobtrusive. And with extras such as videos and a making-of film, Live in Slow Motion is an amazing DVD.
Gray is, in my estimation, one of the bravest artists around today. Not many artists can write love songs that are honest, sincere, and naked without sounding trite or corny, and Gray does so on a consistent basis. More than this, though, he is an artist that is forever evolving, from the laptop beats of “Babylon” to the stately orchestration of “Nos Da Cariad.” This is not change for the sake of experimentation, but an artist’s exploration of his craft. As Live in Slow Motion proves, Gray is one immensely talented songwriter—and one of the few who sounds even better on stage than on record. If you’re looking for a great holiday DVD—one perfect for the serene, timeless evenings of the season—this is it.