David Gray has the biggest selling non-compilation album of all time in Ireland. Did you know that? U2, The Corrs, Van Morrison, this North Manchester-born lad has beaten them all in terms of sheer sales of a single album. White Ladder is that album, an album that vaulted him into the mainstream consciousness worldwide, an album that made Gray an unlikely pop hero in not only Ireland, but in England as well — not to mention pushing all the way across the Atlantic into American hearts and minds. It all happened so suddenly as to seem effortless, if anything can possibly be effortless by the time an artist’s fourth album comes around.
It doesn’t seem like all that long ago that David Gray was beginning to rule the world, but it’s been six years. Six years since “Babylon” topped the charts, and a full three years since he followed it up with the lesson in introversion that is A New Day at Midnight. Counting the reissued compilation of his early EPs and the success-spurred recording of some old Lost Songs, A New Day at Midnight was Gray’s seventh album, every single one of which was done with minimal production work and a bedroom intimacy that is unique to David Gray, derivative as it may be of artists like Van Morrison and his blue-eyed ilk. Despite a few absolute treasures, A New Day at Midnight was also the first album that demonstrated some stagnation in Gray’s songwriting, a treading of water that didn’t suit someone who, only a year or two before, was catapulting into the cultural stratosphere.
Apparently, it’s possible that Gray had taken the quiet introspection as far as he knew how.
Life in Slow Motion is David Gray’s newest album, and despite the title’s implication of further navel-gazing, it’s sonically his most far-reaching album to date, very much in part to the first outside producer Gray has ever employed, one Marius de Vries. Now, this is the guy who produced Madonna’s Ray of Light, the guy who was Baz Luhrmann’s musical director for Moulin Rouge, the guy who finally allowed Rufus Wainwright to achieve his broadway musical aspirations on the Want duo of albums. Obviously, there’s nothing even remotely intimate about his production style; bigger is better, bombast is king, and every open space is filled with a sound pushed to the proverbial eleven. Life in Slow Motion, then, sounds exactly as one might expect: It’s David Gray through a haze of production wizardry and orchestral aspiration.
In many cases, this sense of orchestral majesty works to Life in Slow Motion‘s benefit. Opening track “Alibi” may well have you thinking you bought a Moby album for all of its thick, string-based ambient chord progressions, but eventually the strings bleed into an actual song, one of the most intense slow burns Gray has written. “Alibi” goes so far as to reference mega-hit “Babylon” in its use of the phrase “running wild”, and we get a sense of quiet regret, the flipside (or, perhaps, the consequence) of “Babylon”‘s carpe diem brand of frivolity. “Nos da Cariad” (Welsh for “Goodnight Sweetheart”) focuses on an insistent, pulsing, minor-key piano line that eventually carries into a major-key chorus that features Gray all but screaming over beautiful, motion-carrying backing vocals. The title track is, as one might expect, an exercise in embellishing the static with lush ornamentation, bringing to mind a more fully-realized, optimistic take on past Gray treasures as “This Year’s Love” and “The Other Side”. In these songs, we hear expansive instrumentation, the kind Gray has likely always heard in his imagination but has never had the means (or, in his pre-White ladder days, the money) to express in his finished songs.
As it is wont to do, access to such production tricks tends to lead to underdevelopment in some of the songs as well. “Ain’t No Love” is what sounds like a single verse, a single chorus, and a coda, stretched to three minutes via a long introduction and build via addition of instruments in that coda. “Now and Always”, at almost seven minutes, is stretched at least three minutes longer than it needs to be, due largely in part to an intro that features a fade-in on a rather annoying harmonica line. Conversely, the ever-present orchestration rather humbles the songs that go for the more intimate approach — a quiet, plaintive song like “From Here You Can Almost See the Sea”, which would have been a lovely addition to Lost Songs, gets lost in the shuffle here.
Such missteps and miscalculations are permissible, however, given that Life in Slow Motion plays as much like a debut album by a young star-in-the-making who just got a record deal with a big studio budget as much as it does like an eighth album by a jaded industry veteran over a decade into his career. It’s the wide-eyed wonder with which Gray approaches his new palette that allows the listener to remember the moments of sublime beauty over the moments of heavy-handed awkwardness. Life in Slow Motion is the sound of an artist learning to explore again — perhaps on his next album, David Gray will find what he’s looking for.