ON THE VERGE OF RELEASING HIS FIRST NEW ALBUM IN FOUR YEARS – MUTINEERS (OUT 17TH JUNE IN THE US AND 30TH IN THE UK) – DAVID GRAY’S RELATIONSHIP WITH HIS PAST WORK IS PERHAPS MORE COMPLEX THAN MIGHT BE IMAGINED.
His self-financed fourth album WHITE LADDER, released in 1998, was ‘a last throw of the dice’ after years of critical respect but scant sales. Due in no small part to single BABYLON’s bittersweet rush, it offered the songwriter passage into millions of homes two years after its original release, and seven after that of his debut.
The sudden upward curve from obscurity to notoriety was sharp and undoubtedly exhilarating for Gray, though the eventual ubiquity of WHITE LADDER “changed the game” completely. It became the axis of his career or, as he puts it, “forever the point of comparison”.
The three albums which came before it were revised as dry-runs, and the five which followed were judged to have not quite measured up. The quality of Gray’s songwriting – from 1993 debut A CENTURY ENDS through FLESH (1994) and LIFE IN SLOW MOTION (2005) to 2010’s FOUNDLING – has never been in doubt. But WHITE LADDER set public perception and expectation of him, and a template which seems to have eventually become a creative stranglehold.
MUTINEERS is recognisable as from the man responsible for PLEASE FORGIVE ME, THE OTHER SIDE and THIS YEAR’S LOVE (mainly due to that distinctive voice), but Gray’s new album sees him deliberately charting unfamiliar territories.
The affirming lift-off single BACK IN THE WORLD and soft-edged ballad SNOW IN VEGAS veer closest to his perceived ‘classic’ sound – but across nine other tracks Gray tends to sail in stranger, deeper, waters. “I got away from that narrative of a crucified middle aged man,” he says. “I got into more ethereal territory”. MUTINEERS is different – atmospheric or sometimes impressionistic – but never difficult and not always dark. There is an air of freedom and sense of joyous discovery about it. There are unexpected turns and clean breaks: “You have to tear up the past and let it go”…
Gray briefed his producer Andy Barlow (Lamb) to push him right out of his comfort zone, and to not allow him to work towards “the same record I’d made before”. Familiar songwriting chops were twisted out of shape or discarded altogether. Process – and pride – were early victims of Barlow’s wrecking ball, and the genesis of MUTINEERS was sometimes brutal: “tears, furniture getting thrown”… But new levels of thinking – “new ways of reaching the good stuff” – were found.
Lines from Belgian poet Herman de Coninck’s JUST AS THIS ISLAND BELONGS TO THE GULLS were the direct inspiration for GULLS, an eery soundscape built backwards from a few words on a piece of paper. Pastoral LAST SUMMER begins as a lilting Oriental metronome but, by its stirring closing section, the untethered spirit which lifts Vaughan Williams’ THE LARK ASCENDING has been summoned, tapping into something profound. It’s impossibly romantic, both elevating the heart and breaking it.
Having “reached the end of” himself following extensive Stateside touring for DRAW THE LINE and FOUNDLING, MUTINEERS is an artistic rebirth which crackles with creative vitality. Gray talks about the album – specifically the songs GULLS and LAST SUMMER – in this new edition of The Mouthcast.
MUTINEERS is released on 30th June (or 17th June in the US) and is available on iTunes here, or directly from David Gray’s website. Order the UK standard CD here, a deluxe 3-disc edition (album plus live concert recording CASCADE) here, or double gatefold vinyl edition (including the additional song NEARLY MIDNIGHT) here.