On Mutineers, David Gray’s first release in four years, the problem is not that he has left the building, but rather that he is lost down a better forgotten corridor.
With 2005’s Life in Slow Motion, English singer/songwriter David Gray released the album that his fellow countrymen in Coldplay should have recorded following their 2002 masterpiece A Rush of Blood to the Head. That record’s emphasis on piano ballads made it obvious that Gray, whose sound was largely defined by an off-kilter mix of folk and electronic music, had clearly seen the writing on the wall as far as public interest was concerned. However, while Slow Motion arrived during a time where piano-heavy songwriting was en fuego in a big way, it stood—and still stands—far above it contemporaries, due in large part to Gray’s eclectic songwriting and arranging. From unexpected key modulation (“From Here You Can Almost See the Sea”) to sudden bursts of speaker-melting distortion (the climax of “Disappearing World”), Slow Motion is an album with its feet planted in the trends of its time and its head up in the clouds, dreaming up bigger ideas. It’s an underrated, rewarding collection of songs that is also Gray’s best work to date.
Slow Motion remains to this day Gray’s most grandiose recording in terms of arrangement and production; at the time, it seemed poised to give him a bigger public appreciation than he had received before. Curiously enough, though, it’s not the LP most remember him by; his breakthrough came seven years prior. Though he struck it big in the mainstream with “Babylon,” the hit single off of 1998’s White Ladder, Gray has never been a mainstream songwriter; in fact, his success with that tune remains perplexing still today. The chorus is an earworm, for sure, but Gray’s bizarre lyrics and curious guitar riffs make “Babylon” the most unlikely of radio hits, especially given the boy band era in which it swept airwaves the world over.Strangely enough, however, nine years after Slow Motion, Gray has toed his way back into the mainstream again, doing something similar to his parallel with Coldplay back in 2005. But while Slow Motion one-upped Coldplay’s waning piano ballad formula, Mutineers, Gray’s latest release (and his first in four years), finds him mimicking Coldplay’s greatest failure, the mopey Ghost Stories. That album, released a month ago, is Coldplay’s attempt at a serious, introspective breakup record. Unfortunately, its chosen methodology is to crib from whatever trends in moody indie rock that suited Chris Martin & Co the most. Rather than, say, give a subtle nod to groups like The xx or Bon Iver, Ghost Stories straight-rips from them.
For the most part Mutineers never sees Gray commit any such acts of forgery; the one exception to this would be the closing tome “Gulls”, which pulls from the same Bon Iver-filled well that Coldplay jumped into with their dreadful “Midnight”. The primary similarities to Ghost Stories are the music’s mid-tempo, navel-gazing, and, ultimately, timid features. Admittedly, even Gray’s more upbeat cuts never really get into a rollicking drive; the chorus on “Babylon” is easy to sing along to, but it’d be hard to imagine a lot of movement in a standing-room crowd at one of Gray’s shows. (Some swaying isn’t too much of a stretch, though.) Nevertheless, Mutineers suffers from the malady of mid-tempo addiction, driven in large part by the understated electronics that form the foreground of the LP.
Opener “Back in the World” sets both the mood and the pace for Mutineers. Gray manages to evoke a wide-eyed wonder at being “back in the world again” through his vocal delivery without ever really giving the music the pep that it needs in order to truly evoke that feeling. The key refrain, moreover, is banal: “It’s the only way to be”. Gray has played with repetitive, vague lyrics before; on his last recording prior to this one, 2010’s bare-bones, intimate Foundling, the track “Forgetting” features Gray slowly repeating the word, making it sound as if he is slowly forgetting everything as he sings the song. It’s a strange moment, but a successful one. Sadly, the same cannot be said for “Back in the World Again”, and indeed the majority of the tunes on Mutineers. Methods that Gray has employed in the past, such as the tasteful use of string arrangements (see “Jackdaw” from 2009’s excellent Draw the Line), aren’t enough to save a song like “Beautiful Agony”.
Part of the problem with Gray’s approach here is that he has taken the introspective and moody qualities of his strongest work and removed any of the occasional bombast that made records like Slow Motion and Draw the Line so compelling. Even a serious LP like Slow Motion had moments of energy and excitement, such as “The One I Love” and “Hospital Food”. Moreover, the shift from largely acoustic instrumentation to more electronic fare has dampened Gray’s sound substantially. Gray has always sounded best with an acoustic guitar and especially a piano, a fact which Mutineers does poor service to.
There are, fortunately, two exceptions to this problem in Mutineers. Both “As the Crow Flies” and “Birds of the High Arctic” are somber, stately, piano-driven numbers that are demonstrative of Gray at his best. The former is the more upbeat of the two; its gospel-like repetition in the chorus (“Take all of me once/Take all of me twice”) hearkens back to the minor gem of a hymn that Gray wrote for Draw the Line, “Transformation”. The latter, meanwhile, is utterly gorgeous, with the piano recorded to sound as if it was being played in an echoey, icy valley, one not unlike the one depicted on the sleeve art to Slow Motion. In context, these two songs are dragged down by their adagio obsessed counterparts, but taken individually they are a reminder of Gray at his strongest.
Those two songs, moreover, are the two primary indicators that for all of Gray’s missteps on Mutineers, his inimitable musical identity is still here. The problem is not that he has left the building, but rather that he is lost down a better forgotten corridor. There are still some of the same odd chord progressions that Gray has come to master (though it will be tough to top the jarring acoustic guitar on Foundling’’s “When I Was in Your Heart”).
Gray’s lyrics remain the head-scratching bits of nonsense poetry that they have always been. He is exceptional at crafting lines that are quite pretty and poetic sounding, but meaningless upon closer examination. What it means for someone to have “a bucketful of Babylon/A bellyful of hate” (“Nos de Cariad” from Slow Motion), it’s not clear, but it is a set of lines that rolls easily off the tongue. In some cases, Gray oversteps the bounds of vague poetry into the realm of the utterly nonsensical: few lines in recent memory are as bewildering as the ones on Draw the Line’s title cut: “There are carnivals of silver fish/Waiting to dance upon our bones”. Even Matt Berninger wouldn’t be able to get away with such non sequitur imagery. On Mutineers, Gray is both the half-formed poet and the singer of gibberish: while what it means for something “to fall like snow in Vegas” (“Snow in Vegas”) remains a mystery, his interesting play on the “as the crow flies” measure of distance on the track of the same name is a cheeky bit of observation.
An unexpected benefit of Mutineers, then, is that it invites the listener to look back on all Gray has made to arrive at this point. Despite brief flirtation with Coldplay-esque global fame, his best work has happened somewhere in between the periphery and the mainstream. That he managed to create stellar recordings like the richly produced Slow Motion and Draw the Line without ever giving up his quirks and eccentricities is a testament to his uniqueness as a songwriter. But just as Mutineers is a reminder of all the successful steps Gray has taken to arrive at this point, so too is it an indicator that he has trekked a bit too far off the reservation. Gray has long been a Mutineer in his stylistic choices, but on Mutineers he’s given in to trends that only serve to water down his one-of-a-kind voice.