Expending blood, sweat, and financial resources under the unwanted shade of anonymity, slipping demos to anyone who will listen, playing countless shows where venue staff and the family and friends placed on the guest list far outnumber anyone else in attendance; these plagues are often assigned by the Fates to musicians who find themselves struggling for that elusive first breakthrough. Three albums into the career of David Gray, conditions were similar and the British singer-songwriter found himself on the receiving end of underwhelming sales and an even bleaker relationship with record labels.
Fourth album White Ladder was certainly a personal affair as Gray paid for and recorded the album on his own, allowing the noise of the streets outside his window to mix with somber songs of love and failure. Surprisingly, the album began to pick up steam and make headway in both Ireland and England, precipitating the entrance of Dave Matthews in the role of unlikely savior. Matthews released the album in the United States on his ATO Records label and White Ladder expanded its commercial success on the strength of tracks like “Please Forgive Me”, “This Year’s Love”, and radio darling “Babylon”. Skillfully blending an authentic folk rock approach with cool, detached electronic and ambient sounds, the record showcased Gray’s unique style, setting him apart from those with whom he shared the adult alternative airwaves. Subsequent releases A New Day at Midnight and Life in Slow Motion have furthered Gray’s reputation as an artist who puts a high premium on songcraft as well as one who blends well the organic textures of his influences (Dylan and Van Morrison are often referenced as having made a significant impression on Gray) and the radiance possible in the shimmer of modern pop.
Often when a performer who has toiled through relative obscurity is greeted with unanticipated success, a strange phenomenon occurs. The artist, who may have formerly wondered if they even had a fan base, now has one seemingly divided into two camps: a small, fiercely devoted segment who have felt the artist’s struggles as their own and a broader, more diverse cross section of the record buying public who may be unaware that the artist’s breakthrough is no case of overnight success, having little or no exposure to their back catalog. For those wanting to fill the gaps in their contact with a newly treasured artist or for longtime fans looking to revisit the simpler times, an exploration of past work can enrich the experience. David Gray fans have the option of mining the wealth of his past albums (which in this instance provide a rewarding opportunity) or turning to Shine: The Best of the Early Years, a new summation of his earliest offerings.
The listener approaching the material on a retrospective like Shine would do well to ask several questions. First, is the record a proper representative sample of Gray’s first works? The collection’s fifteen tracks are divided evenly from among those early albums whose potential went so overlooked: 1993’s A Century Ends, 1994’s Flesh and 1996’s Sell, Sell, Sell. The sheer fairness used in proportioning the track listing gives listeners access to a reasonably clear picture of what Gray’s early work was truly about.
Next, how does this glimpse into Gray’s older material compare with later works that have established and sustained his fame? Has his musical output been steady and even in its direction and quality, or does it prove dim when held up to the bright lights of his sure successes? In Gray’s case, the results are mostly positive, revealing some slight differences between initial and more recent recordings but more often than not proving the consistency of his skill in a career where response to that skill has not been as consistent as it should.
Several moments on the album reveal a youthful exuberance which expressed itself on tracks that wind up sounding far aggressive and insistent than anything on Gray’s later efforts. While no one will ever confuse David Gray with David Bowie, songs like “Faster, Sooner, Now” and “Sell, Sell, Sell” receive the full band treatment and exhibit a more rock and roll side of Gray that sees little sunlight on later projects. At times, this part of Gray’s musical personality is articulated a bit awkwardly but is still fun to hear. Occasionally, Gray trips over his own vocal intensity on more midtempo songs like “The Light” but the ambition he displays is a precursor to more focused efforts.
Exquisite offerings such as “Hold on to Nothing”, “Coming Down”, and the title cut are evidence that Gray has long had a talent for writing memorably passionate songs and that such intimately constructed settings are the perfect backdrop for his uniquely expressive voice, able to convey both quiet desperation and enduring joy. Furthermore, even the most casual Gray fan needs to have a copy of the tracks “Late Night Radio”, “Flesh”, and “Debauchery” in their possession; any of these cuts could have found a place among his most successful releases to date.
Time has been good to Gray and though his newer work is tempered with a maturity not fully realized here, Shine: The Best of the Early Years is worth experiencing, if for no other reason, than to witness the portrait it paints of a now famous songwriter through times when he was on the cusp of being famous without knowing it, guided only by a raw gift for melody and a fire in his belly.