US release date: 17 April 2001
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The Long Climb
An artist seldom comes out of nowhere, or picks up his guitar and finds a fully realized talent just waiting there to receive voice. Artists mimic their heroes, try on different voices, and struggle in their bedrooms with the yawning chasm between what they hear in their heads and what ultimately ends up on paper, canvas, or paint. It’s not any fun (OK, it is in a slightly masochistic way), and there’s little reason to do it other than the joy of creation and the fact that an itch or a fire or a compulsion usually makes it so. David Gray knows this as well as anyone. Sure, White Ladder sold over six million copies in Ireland before meeting success in America and the rest of the world. But there was also a time when he considered giving up music completely, when he wondered if he might not just be ramming his head into a wall that would never give. In the wake of White Ladder‘s success, Dave Matthews christened his ATO label by picking up Gray and releasing Lost Songs, while Caroline Records has put his first three releases into print. It’s like mannah from Heaven for the David Gray fan, but it’s also a stark look at how Gray struggled to find the voice that suddenly clicked inside his head and with millions of listeners.
His debut, 1993’s A Century Ends, finds Gray at the same point as anyone who initially gets up on a stage. He’s talented, but there’s a lack of identity and personality in this early work. His vocal delivery is too earnest, seemingly built on an unwavering faith in Dylan and other protest poets who came before. He doesn’t show enough confidence in the material to let it speak for itself—and maybe that’s for good reason. Much of A Century Ends isn’t significantly better than what most struggling musicians sell out of their trunks after shows. There are flashes of beauty, though. “Shine” leaves its routine acoustic arrangement to flirt with gospel, while “Gathering Dust” is nicely pastoral, and the interplay between guitar and organ feels a bit like swaying in a swing on a nice evening, even if the subject matter is a good bit darker. “Lead Me Upstairs” manages to bleakly convey a difficult setting and narrator (who introduces herself with “I care little for my body…couldn’t care less about my soul”). It’s the story of a one-night stand that’s anything but young and anything but joyous. A plaintive saxophone seals the deal, and at least shows the early Gray was capable of realizing his artistic reach from time to time.
Other tracks on A Century Ends are less successful. “Let the Truth Sting” teems with venomous anger and a heavy Dylan fetish. Gray repeatedly teeters on the razor’s edge between cliché and awkwardness with images like “the shadows of delusion’s regime”. “Birds Without Wings” finds him extending his protest singer mode even farther (“across the fractured landscape, I see the same things / tired ideas, broken values / many with the notion that to share is to lose/ a hollow people bound by a lack of imagination and too much looking back / without the courage to give a new thing a chance / grounded by this ignorance / when the cat comes, we’re just birds without wings”). “Debauchery” is just odd if for no other reason than the heavy old-time troubadour accent he uses as he growls his way decadently through the song.
Overall, A Century Ends is a typical first record—uneven, but certainly not terrible. However, it lacks the strengths that Gray shows later on. The same can be said for the follow-up, 1994’s Flesh. Here, Gray’s touched with the same over-emotive delivery, only a little more gruff, like a cross between an earnest pub singer and Dave Matthews. His lyrics still teem with anger (“What Are You?” finds him singing, “I’ll take the cynic’s role and throw scorn on your empty mind”). However, the arrangements stretch out a little more. “Falling Free” is a stark, if not especially gripping piano ballad, while “Made up My Mind” boasts a spiky, high-energy alternative sound. “Mystery of Love” has a folksy, country blues feel, and “Loves Old Song” even borrows a little bit of a honky-tonk vibe.
The EPs 92-94 bridges A Century Ends and Flesh, representing the singles that he released during that time. As expected, it’s along the same lines in terms of feel and sound, although “Lovers” rides a nicely ominous acoustic pulse and “4:AM” possesses a rollicking piano riff and acoustic guitar flourishes. Overall, it provides a good summary of Gray’s first two albums, before he moved on to 1996’s Sell, Sell, Sell. Throughout this entire period, Gray struggles with his career and direction, and you have to wonder if critical praise like Joan Baez’s comment that Gray was “the best lyricist since Dylan” didn’t make him try just a little too hard.
With Lost Songs, Gray suddenly comes into his own, and it does seem to be on the heels of some sort of epiphany. Although the material is from various spots in Gray’s career, he reportedly recorded this batch over 10 days in October of 1999. The music is fuller, more mature, far more intimate. Gone are the vocal excesses of the earlier works—instead, this is the foundation for the Gray that appears on the electronic-tinged White Ladder—mellowed, with a firm grasp on just what he wants to do as an artist. If Lost Songs didn’t exist as a segue to White Ladder, there’d be virtually no explaining the David Gray that emerged from this period. As it is, Lost Songs still doesn’t provide much of a clue. How does a man go from a fairly generic pub wanderer’s sound without any emotional or artistic center to suddenly begin creating work of this quality? His songs are suddenly more evocative, with “Falling Down the Mountainside” and “Twilight” joining White Ladder‘s “Night Blindness” for sheer late-night beauty. “Tidal Wave” utilizes a nice counterpoint of emotionally wrenched lyrics atop a melody that’s more like the gentle babbling of a brook. The two instrumentals—“January Rain” and “Wurlitzer”—are slight, but the rest of the album is remarkably realized. There are still the occasional awkward moments—such as a weird bit of creative pronunciation to rhyme “cup” and “stop” in “Twilight”—but this is indeed the David Gray that most fans will recognize, one assured and possessed of greatly improved skills over the early David Gray that began a career back in 1992.
It’s not often that you get this kind of wholesale opportunity to re-evaluate an artist. Usually, early work is left to sit in obscurity because it’s not up to snuff, or it’s quietly buried because it’s different in some embarrassing way. Gray puts it all right out there, and I’m sure that the early recordings that don’t work for me will thrill some of Gray’s fans. In light of his recent progress and of his embrace of a more modern, fluid sound than many of his influences, the early albums can only be realistically seen as stepping stones. I can’t imagine what made Gray change his style. Perhaps there was some personal tragedy or triumph. Maybe it was the frustration of trying to break through, or maybe it was an electrical life-changing charge that went through him on hearing some new piece of music. Whatever it was, Gray stands poised to make some quality, affecting pop in the years to come. The work found on A Century’s End, Flesh, and The EPs 92-94 shouldn’t be seen as a mark on Gray’s career; rather they should be taken as a stark reminder of the monumental climb that he had to undertake before he could finally take a breather and look back on the path that got him where he is.
// Notes from the Road
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