David Gray is making his case for being named official folk singer of the new millennium. Working again with Producers McClune and Polson on his latest project A New Day at Midnight, the trio have recorded an album that’s accessible enough to play in front of your parents, and interesting enough to leave on at a party. McClune and Polson are the same two who believed in Gray’s singing and song writing ability over the past 10 years when a series of record labels did not. They were the ones with him in his London flat when he recorded the album that would change his life forever: White Ladder. The album, which eventually went on to sell 70,000 copies in its first week of release in Britain, and achieve quintuple-platinum status worldwide, is a solid collection of sweet and bitter-sweet tunes that begged you to listen.
A New Day at Midnight more or less picks up where White Ladder left off three years ago. This doesn’t mean that the recording sounds like outtakes from its predecessor. On the contrary, Gray has gone a ways down the musical path from where he was. It just so happens that we can see the map he’s traveling by quite clearly. The progression from songs off White Ladder such as “Babylon” and “Sail Away” to what he’s doing now is quite clear. What does this mean? If you liked Gray before, you’ll still like him now.
Unlike Dylan, who was nearly stoned to death when he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, Gray has never had any qualms about polishing his songs with synthesizers and a drum and bass hooks. Truth be told, after 15 years of toiling away for a record industry that passed him around like a hot potato, he probably doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks. But it was just this touch of the electronic, woven in with the soul revealing lyrics and good-natured expressive voice, that caught the world’s attention. When I say world, I mean Dave Mathews. Gray opened for the Dave Mathews Band in the mid-nineties. As the story goes, when Mathews heard White Ladder a few years later, he was moved by its beauty immediately. So he decided to make it the debut release on his vanity imprint label ATO Records. That’s when America caught on, a.k.a. the real rest of the world.
“Dead in the Water” opens A New Day at Midnight like a slinky walking down the stairs. Something about the way the song begins with a combination of synth hooks and Gray’s own effects-ridden guitar playing seems inevitable and self-propelled. Perhaps the natural progression of the song from verse to chorus to verse is a mark of good song writing. In fact, Gray’s song writing ability has changed significantly since his last release. Gone are the sappy, wayward epiphanies thought up on a sandy beach at sunset that seemed to dominate much of White Ladder. These have been replaced with fine imagery and metaphors that we just didn’t know Gray had in him. Van Morrison’s influence is still plain to hear, as is Dylan’s singing style. But Gray isn’t imitating. Instead, it sounds like Gray is merely attempting to achieve the same ends as these two masters, and it just so happens that their means are the best method.
“Freedom” is a good example. On the surface it’s another of Gray’s melancholy heartbreak songs about the death of love. The time signature and melody are classic Gray, the slow-motion rattling rhythm like watching the embers die in the fire at the end of the night. “Freedom” is a hopeful word that Gray is using to try and convince himself that a future alone is the best choice, achingly looking at the bright side.
Other songs on the album are a bit more derivative. “Real Love” actually starts off sounding like a slowed down version of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”, while “Easy Way to Cry” uses the tinny guitar that we al associate with David Gray, and could have been pulled from White Ladder. I can already hear it playing in the background of the preview for the next Julia Roberts romantic-comedy. “Kangaroo” sounds like it could be an alternate version of “Sail Away” from White Ladder. None of these songs are bad. They each have potent, sing-along choruses, and Gray’s voice, which is excellent at conveying emotion. But no new ground is broken either. For someone who has labored as long as Gray has to achieve success, you’d like to see him keep pushing the envelope rather than rely on the same tricks.
Just about every song on the album is worth listening to, if not amazing. But there are a few that make A New Day at Midnight above average. In “Knowhere”, Gray uses the drum machine and synthesizer to make real headway into the tradition of folk music and his own heart. This might be the finest produced song on the New Day at Midnight.
“The Other Side”, which ends the album, is a melodic reprise of “Dead in the Water”, which opens the CD. Gray overtly mourns the death of his father here, who passed away in the interim between White Ladder and the recording of A New Day at Midnight. You can hear his pain in the lyrics, and in his voice. The tune begins with Gray alone at the piano. About halfway through, the guitar and drums dramatically kick in. This is Gray at his most poignant and evocative. Fans will be reminded why they like the guy in the first place.