The Flipside #12: David Gray's 'A New Day at Midnight'
Following the massive success of 1999's White Ladder and its mega-hit single "Babylon", David Gray could have taken any number of paths. He chose A New Day at Midnight, and it made all the difference.
A New Day at Midnight
28 Oct 2002
EZELL: On "Babylon", the unassuming yet massively popular single from the 1999 album White Ladder, David Gray sings, "Friday night, and I'm going nowhere." By the time the promotional and touring cycles for White Ladder concluded, Gray was going far from nowhere. Looking back on the record now it doesn't exactly smack of international success: the bedroom studio production quality and simplistic guitar riffs and chord progressions. But for many reasons one can speculate -- Gray's charming earnestness, sharp lyricism, and his rise to fame happening right in the middle of the Dave Matthews Band's golden days -- White Ladder took Gray, who already had three discs to his name by 1999, to the musical stratosphere. (A curious musical factoid: White Ladder remains the highest-selling album in Ireland, besting even national favorites like U2.) A New Day at Midnight, Gray's followup to White Ladder, much of the world had a keen interest in where Gray was going next.
By nature of its construction White Ladder set up a real challenge for Gray as he decided how to continue building his aesthetic. The album's intimate production quality and straightforward electronic elements feel like the kind of thing that can't be repeated without feeling old-hat really quickly. With the exception of 1996's Sell, Sell, Sell, which featured some clear attempts at the radio pop-rock market (including the much-slept on and brilliant "Late Night Radio"), Gray's output trended toward the quiet, the hushed, the intimate. Both A Century Ends (1993) and Flesh (1994) adopt stripped-down approaches that illustrate Gray's ability to write a pure, simple, and strong song (check Flesh's Falling Free). Yet Sell, Sell Sell's high points, "Late Night Radio" especially, showcase Gray's ability to bolster his core songwriting techniques with more instrumentation. That's why I often call 2005's Life in Slow Motion Gray's finest hour; throughout the record, you can hear the heart of each song clearly, but the elevated production and string arrangements massively enhance what already stands as a compelling collection of tracks without all the embellishments.
A New Day at Midnight is the most liminal of Gray's releases: placed between White Ladder's spare simplicity and Life in Slow Motion's grandiosity, it finds Gray at a critical moment of self-definition. Would he try to capitalize on White Ladder-type songwriting, or would he try to advance onward with a new style in tow at the start of the 21st century?
The answer ends up closer toward the former of those two, at first. Much of A New Day at Midnight carries on the stylings of White Ladder, what with its electronic drum programming, unflashy production, and earnest lyrical declarations of love. Yet there's also a lot more muscle here, whereas even the best White Ladder material requires the live setting to really blossom. (When I reviewed a show on Gray's Mutineers tour for this very publication, I was delighted to see how the mid-tempo chill of "My Oh My" was given an expanded, crescendo-heavy outro.) Before I wax too poetic about some of A New Day at Midnight's key moments -- I consider myself something of a Gray "stan", if such a thing exists -- I wonder how you came to experience his music, Evan. Was it the head-bopping that roped you in?
SAWDEY: Weirdly, my main exposure to David Gray was on, of all things, Saturday Night Live. His booking agent at the time must've been God-level, because while White Ladder was making some noise, it hadn't exactly taken off yet in America. Tom Green was the host of that particular 2000 episode, and I remember upon learning the guest was David Gray, thought "... who?"
However, his performance of "Babylon" was truly transfixing. His straightforward delivery, the breezy and immediate melody -- it was all there. I soon bought the just-barely-rereleased White Ladder and fell in love. Perhaps taken back by the surprise overperformance of the album, ATO the next year issued Lost Songs 95-98, a hodgepodge of largely-acoustic numbers that was meant to satiate the masses who couldn't easily get copies of earlier albums like Flesh or Sell, Sell, Sell.
It was on Lost Songs 95-98 that the breadth of his talents really came into focus, from broad MOR piano folk-rock with "A Clean Pair of Eyes" to genuine romantic sweetness with the lightly strummed "If Your Love Is Real". The instrumental cut "January Rain" soon made its way in the the scores of major studio romantic features, and even a little tossaway at the end like "Wurlitzer" showed his charm. With just an acoustic, he managed to weave his sound through so many styles and strum patterns that it felt more like an indie greatest hits record than it did a stopgap release between albums. It was hard not to fall in love with David Gray for that. (Lost Songs 95-98 also overperformed, leading to reissues of his back catalog and a new round up of his EP material.)
My relationship with A New Day at Midnight is a bit odd, but overall positive. The drum machines and little electronic/pop elements tossed over Gray's acoustic on White Ladder could be argued as a bit of an obvious move, but lordy does it still work for me, sounding fun and immediate close to two decades after its release. A New Day at Midnight still holds on to those quirky textures and details (catch that warped wah guitar on the intro to album opener "Dead in the Water") but uses them sparingly, keeping the focus on the songs first and foremost. (But in fairness, the beat to "Caroline" does sound a bit dated and also totally rips off the same thing that R.E.M. did on "Hope" from their 1998 album Up.)
But lordy, the rest of a A New Day at Midnight shares some glorious surprises and lush melodies. Although the production is very much indebted to the breakthroughs Gray accomplished with White Ladder, "Knowhere" may be one of his most satisfying mid-tempo pop moments ever.
Having lost his father to cancer a year prior to this album's release, a lot of the lyrics are about searching and finding one's place in the world, but there's not a lot of melancholy tied to this record; it's remarkably light, approachable. I remember hearing A New Day at Midnight when it came out and leaving it feeling completely satisfied. However, at the end of the day, White Ladder will always be my favorite David Gray record. Yet, this being the Flipside, I'm open to radical new ideas (like, for example, that Tom Green was once famous enough to host Saturday Night Live). What, Mr. Ezell, truly elevates A New Day at Midnight above the rest of Gray's other esteemed records for you?
EZELL: To clarify, I would say that A New Day at Midnight rises above most of Gray's pre-Life in Slow Motion music; I maintain that when he moved away from electronics toward acoustic instrumentation on Life in Slow Motion and Draw the Line he really hit his stride. (Well, that is, save for the slight and probably too spartan Foundling, comprised of material that would have largely best been relegated to Draw the Line B-sides.) And when it comes to the first half of Gray's career, I think it's not wrong to say that White Ladder ranks as his truest achievement. Sure, "Babylon" and "This Year's Love" are the easy answers to the "Hey, do you know David Gray's music?" question, but they are great tunes (though finding out certain details about Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner's relationship to the song somewhat ruined it for me). The production quality of White Ladder aged considerably, but the songwriting didn't.
A New Day at Midnight retains some of White Ladder's aesthetic, but you can also hear Gray -- probably riding the high brought on by White Ladder's surprise success -- starting to burst out of that record's seams. "Dead in the Water" remains a low-key Gray favorite of mine; I love the driving rhythm of the song, and the tension that's built musically by his frequent switching between major and minor versions of the same chord. Equally underrated is the simple lament "Last Boat to America", whose somewhat cheesy synthesizer texture doesn't detract from the song's beautiful simplicity. Somber closer "The Other Side" still stands out in live performances to this day, and its dramatic piano chords foreshadow some of the material that crops up on Life in Slow Motion ("Alibi", "Disappearing World"). Much like 2017's special live release Live at the National Concert Hall Dublin, "The Other Side" benefits from Gray taking out any sonic clutter. The track's life-and-death themes and somber air could have easily been turned into an epic, string-swept finale, but Gray keeps the focus on his lyrics, which are some of the strongest on the album:
I know it would be outrageous
To come on all courageous
And offer you my hand
To pull you up on dry land
When all I got is sinking sand
The trick ain't worth the time it buys
I'm sick of hearing my own lies
And love's a raven when it flies
Then there's "Be Mine", a sterling reminder that Gray might just be our greatest living writer of love songs. At the risk of overgeneralizing, while a lot of contemporary popular music about love trends toward the cynical and melancholic side of things, Gray's love songs are earnest without being cloying, sincere without being trite. "Be Mine", with its simple chorus and catchy-yet-simple guitar lick, didn't dominate the charts the way "Babylon" did when it was released as a White Ladder single, but it deserved to. Then there's the matter of the "Be Mine" music video, which starts off as a seemingly normal and serviceable performance video until... well, you just have to watch it to believe it. Let's just say: heads will roll.
Although many of A New Day at Midnight's triumphs can still be called Gray classics, even if minor ones (a designation which I wholeheartedly give to "Last Boat to America"), there is also a decent amount on the album that doesn't click with me. Typically these are tracks that stay at a certain kind of midtempo that Gray is liable to get lost in: "Kangaroo" and "December" end up especially guilty of this. Gray can pull off bombastic and high-energy tunes ("Dead in the Water", though the shouted chorus of "Real Love" comes close to besting it) and ultra-distilled, minimally arranged pieces ("Last Boat to America", "The Other Side"), but the songs of his I remember the least are those that just kind of coast. For that reason, I'm not as keen on Lost Songs 95-98 as you are, even as "Flame Turns Blue" might just be the best lyric he's ever penned.
SAWDEY: But that's also where I think the discussion leads us to: where does Gray find himself in the pantheon of great singer-songwriters? White Ladder was a moment -- that's unquestioned -- but he also had to know that no album he released after the fact would've had the same impact. Thus, you're not wrong for wanting to dive deep into A New Day at Midnight, as Gray used his "moment" well, expanding his sound while not straying too far from the sonic that shot him into the spotlight, his gifts as a songwriter growing and expanding from there. To this day, I'm still a fan of the immediacy of White Ladder, even if some of the drum machines are a bit dated, but the maturation he achieved with A New Day at Midnight will always garner my respect.
It's also bizarre to think that this album came out over a decade and a half ago. The moves he cops on "Knowhere" sound like whatever Coldplay is trying to sound like today, but goodness he does the cryptic lyric thing lightyears better than Chris Martin ever could (that opening couplet of "Slow voices speaking through a hurricane / Said that I wanted but I lied" always gets me). Between that, "Caroline", "Dead in the Water", etc., there are more than a few career-worthy highlights on this record. However, "Kangaroo" and the rather confused-sounding "Easy Way to Cry" are moments that aren't inherently bad but definitely muddled and simple in comparison to the rest of the material here.
So Mr. Ezell, in our Flipside discussions, you refer to this as a rather liminal record but the polarizing Life in Slow Motion (released three years after A New Day at Midnight came out) as your all-time favorite Gray album. What made you want to revisit A New Day at Midnight for this column? Might those gears still be working on your mind and maybe deep down this is your secret favorite David Gray album? Or are you working on wedding playlists and David Gray, as we know, had made more than a few songs that would work out great as first dances for a young new couple ...
EZELL: A surprising amount of people, I discovered upon researching for this column, have used "Be Mine" as a first dance, but its peppy chorus doesn't lend itself well to the typically slow first dances at weddings, but that's just my taste. More weddings than either of us could count have used "This Year's Love" or "Sail Away" for that all-important first dance. The latter two (to say nothing of several other great tunes on White Ladder) fit the wedding bill rather nicely, and as I said earlier I think of Gray as our quintessential author of love songs. He's not my personal #brand, if you will, but I do respect those who want to use him as a lead-in to the inevitable and groan-worthy drop of "The Cha-Cha Slide".
The main reason I wanted to revisit A New Day at Midnight is for the exact reason you describe: Gray had a moment to balloon the success of White Ladder and maintain his relevance into the new millennium, but with A New Day at Midnight he doesn't exactly try a hard break, which is why I think many still view him as a one-album wonder. Admittedly, he sells out plenty of shows even still -- the concert I mentioned attending earlier was close to full, if not sold out -- but his name doesn't carry the gravitas of Great Modern Songwriter, which I think is a real shame. Starting with the music on Sell, Sell, Sell and culminating with the masterful Life in Slow Motion and Draw the Line, Gray can count to his name what is some of the best singer/songwriter music of his generation. He's a near-peerless lyricist, and he's also behind some of the most moving chord progressions I've heard in this genre (case in point: "Birds of the High Arctic" off of his last studio LP, 2014's Mutineers). Sadly, to far too many people he's "the 'Babylon' guy", or, if I may quote you, Evan, the kind of guy who:
David Gray: proudly soundtracking every PG-rated sex scene ever.
— Evan Sawdey (@SawdEye) May 9, 2012
Now, as is the case with many artists I love, Gray contentedly writes the music he wants to write, and more than happily thrives off of a medium-to-small but devoted fanbase. I'm not saying that Gray should have been the Next Big Pop Star following the implosion of the boy band era, but I do think he's owed a little more credit than he's given. This brings me to the question that spurred my suggesting A New Day at Midnight for this column: what could have Gray done to brighten his star after White Ladder? Or is the path he's been on since the decidedly less rapturous reception to A New Day at Midnight one he's always been fated to follow?
SAWDEY: Well Gray is someone who takes songwriting very personally -- they're from him so they're sung by him. Although he's allowed the occasional collaboration over the years (particularly with that Annie Lennox duet "Full Steam" off of Draw the Line), if Gray really wanted to expand his prominence, he could've showed up as a guest on goodness knows how many other artists' albums. He could've wrote behind the scenes and given that one lush acoustic ballad to say Lady Gaga or Beyonce -- both of whom have collaborated with their share of indie-minded song folks, in their cases Father John Misty and Ezra Koening of Vampire Weekend, respectively.
Yet Gray didn't do that, and instead focused on just putting out more David Gray music. He very much made an insular world for himself, but it's one that people do tend to get lost in, and no matter how many albums he puts out in the next 20 years, the piano chord for "Please Forgive Me" can come pounding in and an entire auditorium of people would go absolutely nuts (and for good reason).
So props to David Gray: his pop moment came somewhat unexpectedly and he stayed true to himself. Regardless of what you think about Life in Slow Motion or the languid, drawn out whispers of Foundling, no one can ever accuse Gray of selling out, as no matter how many drum breaks, production washes, or string sections you lace over his songs, at the end of the day he'll still have his acoustic guitar with him and still use that to play any of the over 100 songs he's written.
Who knows, Brice: he might even catch wind of this article, hear you're getting married, and do that one thing that you know you want for your first dance: reach out to his friend Marcus Mumford and see if he's available on your special day.
EZELL: Actually, I've already put in an inquiry to the Mumford camp about the "Scream-Sing Like You're Constipated" Special. I have a feeling he'll be a bit above my price range, but... just maybe.
There's some truth to your point about collaborations. Gray can pull off a great duet, as evinced both by the Lennox tune and his updated version of "Snow in Vegas" from Mutineers featuring LeAnn Rimes, an artist I genuinely thought evaporated after 1999. But truth be told? Gray didn't re-capture the commercial and popular magic of White Ladder not just because he committed to "the David Gray sound"; it's also a fact that the David Gray sound emerged out of a distinct cultural moment, the same one that Greta Gerwig's superlative directorial debut Lady Bird tried to make cool again. That's right: the Dave Matthews moment. Right before the time you first encountered Gray on SNL, he had been touring with Matthews, and White Ladder itself is the inaugural release of ATO Records, which Matthews created. Gray's music doesn't indulge the acoustic noodling that defines the Dave Matthews Band live experience, nor do Gray's vocal inflections ever reach the loopy syllable garbling for which Matthews is so famous. But it should come as no surprise now that Matthews brought Gray on tour and promoted his music more generally: Gray's kind, acoustic guitar and piano-driven music has obvious appeal to the Dave Matthews Band crowd.
I say this while not totally endorsing the comparison. Gray and Matthews are distinct artists, and for however many similarities they share, their aesthetics diverge enough that the waning of Matthews' cultural moment shouldn't have necessarily caused Gray to fall out of the limelight. Still, the link between Gray and the Matthews-type sound was well established, if not outright cemented by the release of White Ladder on ATO, and as the early '00s turned to the supposed rock revival, with every other band named something like "The Hives" or "The Strokes", Gray couldn't get the same public ear that he did when "Babylon" stormed the charts.
But, as you say, it speaks to Gray's artistic integrity that rather than latch on to the new trends that surrounded him, with A New Day at Midnight he stuck to his guns. Fortunately, he moved on to bigger and better things with subsequent releases. I'm not sure I could have handled another album of "acoustic guitar and piano meets cheap electronic drums and synths". A New Day at Midnight isn't exactly that, but it is a farewell to the White Ladder era, and what a fine farewell it is. It's not Gray's masterpiece, but it doesn't need to be. That it showcases his songwriting talent and serves as an important career transition where he didn't give up on himself is more than enough.
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