by Andy Fawcett
Here’s a question for you to ponder; how many artists, in the recent history of contemporary music (the last forty years, say), have released four albums on the trot that can all be considered genuine masterpieces? Tellingly, my own attempt to answer it quickly transports me back to the Seventies – Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley and a memory block over the sequence of Pink Floyd’s releases following Wish You Were Here (was it Animals, then The Wall? Either way, I guess they’re out of the reckoning …). The point I’m making, though, is that there may not be a single currently-active artist who would even enter the frame … with one exception.
Because, in my estimation, David Gray has achieved that very feat. Starting with 1998’s extraordinary White Ladder – and continuing through Lost Songs 95-98 (2001), A New Day at Midnight (2002) and Life in Slow Motion (2005) – he produced four memorable statements of intense lyricism, superlative songwriting and musical variety. Granted, the initial critical reception for New Day … was lukewarm, its confronting emotional bleakness having stemmed from the recent death of Gray’s father, though I feel that the passage of time has helped to reveal the full force of its artistry. The simple fact is that a new David Gray album has big shoes to fill – so is it asking too much for Draw The Line to extend the sequence?
Well, it marks the first significant change in band personnel for quite a while, with drummer and long-time musical collaborator Craig McClune having departed in late-2006. Whether that’s the root cause of it I don’t know, but the album pushes fewer boundaries creatively than those that preceded it; there’s a sense of the band relaxing into its groove, a middle-of-the-road feeling that lacks a certain edge, failing to take the listener anywhere unexpected. Lyrically, though, the ship appears to have stayed more on course. Unquestionably one of the very finest wordsmiths of his generation, Gray’s disaffection has always found its expression not in overt politicisation, but in acerbic (and, presumably, therapeutic) self-examination. In 2002’s The Other Side, for example, he sang;
Honey now if I’m honest
I still don’t know what love is
Another mirage folds
into the haze of time recalled
Now the floodgates cannot hold
All my sorrow, all my rage
A teardrop falls on every page
While the lyrics on the new album still ostensibly hew to this formula, my intuitive sense on first listening was that his alienation seemed more abstract; a little forced, perhaps, and certainly less heartfelt/autobiographical than previously. Take the opening verse of the title track, for instance;
Well we had to grab on something
So we’re pulling at the threads
And now the world’s unravelling
Inside our very heads
Glasses smeared with lipstick
Hungry eyes out in the street
Same old bodies moving
To the same old beat
Had to draw the line
Disaffection for its own sake? Gray has stated that the album’s title has a confrontational element to it yet, I must admit, I sense little of the simmering, restless anger that once propelled him. Indeed, I had brief cause to wonder whether he might even have been visited by that unkindest muse – contentment! The prospects for a cheerful singer-songwriter are about as promising as an accident-prone stuntman …
So, you’ll have deduced that I don’t like the disc? Well, it’s no classic … there are simply too many weak tracks (the dirge-like Transformation and unmitigatedly awful Stella the Artist among them). On the other hand, David Gray is too fine a musician and songwriter not to have provided some genuine highlights. Chief among these is the wonderful Kathleen – Jolie Holland’s quirky harmonies illuminating a reminiscence of the folkier influences apparent in Gray’s earliest recordings – and the unexpected, irresistible up-tempo chorus in Breathe.
The recording quality on Gray’s recent releases has generally been a cut above the norm, with Life in Slow Motion heading into demo disk territory. While Draw The Line has some of the elements of a good recording, it does at times feature a curiously muddy quality to the bass, a lack of focus and some incoherent soundstaging that, while doing little to detract from enjoyment of the music, is disappointing nonetheless.
Other commentators have bemoaned the demise of the pop album during the CD era, and I can only agree (indeed, my fear is that iTunes may kill the very concept of an ‘album’ completely). How many discs released in the last 20 years can you happily listen to and enjoy from the first track to the last? Not many, I’ll bet. Yet, the truth is that most of us own far more music than we can ever hope to listen to, so “cherry-picking” is the order of the day. In that context, an album with three or four stand-out tracks can easily justify its existence; and Draw The Line certainly qualifies on that score. I don’t see the album winning new fans but, if you’re already a devotee, consider this a cautious recommendation!
IHT 271 229-8
Play time: 47:00
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