Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Top 100 Albums - #8: Life In Slow Motion (2005)

At number 8 is Life In Slow Motion, the second and final chart entry for singer-songwriter David Gray.
Gray's fourth album, White Ladder (1999, #58), brought the singer critical acclaim and a series of hit singles throughout the year 2000. The album was finally released in America in March 2001 just as it hit the top spot in the UK album charts after nearly a year-and-a-half on release. The American launch was accompanied by the compilations The EPs 1992-1994 and Lost Songs 1995-1998 (both 2001), which cherry-picked from Gray's first three albums and provided listeners with a few interesting rare tracks. In 2002 Gray released the long-awaited follow-up, A New Day At Midnight, which produced two strong singles but was met with lukewarm reviews. Following the tour to support the album, Gray went on hiatus for three years to recover from the exhaustion of his new-found fame.

We begin with 'Alibi', an interestingly downbeat choice for an opening track. Where 'Please Forgive Me' on White Ladder presented itself upfront with simple but confident piano, this crawls out of the speakers, feeling its way with much less confidence through the trees. But once the flute and pipes have cleared, Gray's distinctive voice swells in the centre of the mix and the whole track comes alive. As with much of his work, the lyrics are a little hard to understand, either in their meaning or Gray's delivery. But one cannot fail to be taken in by his performance.

This continues on 'The One I Love', the first and most successful single. This is the archetypal pop song: lyrics which are to the point yet strangely meaningful; simple yet distinctive melody; and an appealing sense of warmth at the heart of it all. Despite ticking all the singer-songwriter boxes, this is far from boring. The lyrics may be that of a love song, but Gray has a knack for slipping in the odd interesting image that you don't notice first time round. Lines like Perfect summer's night/ Not a windy breeze/ Just the bullets whispering gentle/ Amongst the new green leaves gel seamlessly while making the song surprisingly dark. Add in some good jangly guitar in the third verse and you have a very strong single indeed.

'Lately' calms the mood again, retaining the guitar but in a more whistful capacity. Gray once again rises to the challenge of a wide vocal range, soaring on the high notes with barely a hint of strain. The melody dances over the guitar and mouth organ with a light-hearted vigour, and the lyrics are unobtrusive without ever becoming bland. This is classic easy-listening fare, managing to be distinctive without being overpowered, and it's a very good piece of mood music.

The mood darkens down somewhat on 'Nos De Cariad', whose title is Welsh for "goodnight sweetheart". But rather than being the sweet lullaby we expect, this is far more dolorous and portentous. Gray croons Go to sleep my one true love as if he is fearful that the world will end. This dark tone is strongly reflected in the final verse:

The sun above the cotton grass
Is sinking down like lead
The seagulls know the truth of it
And scream it overhead
Hold on to St. Christopher
The sky is murderous red
Go to sleep my one true love
Our glory lies ahead

Such verses read like a macabre folk poem, so the fact that they are set against a relatively bright tone and major key is both a jarring and pleasant surprise. The lyrics wash over you, you absorb the imagery and start to warm to the story therein even as the darkness unfolds.

'Slow Motion' is the first of three truly outstanding tracks on here. The opening seconds set the tone for the album with their long, sparse and echoey chords. The opening verse is simple repetition, and yet the words seem to say so much. Then the percussion kicks in like a series of bizarrely sycopatic clocks and the song settles into a wonderful eulogy about the passing of a loved one. Gray watches a friend die in front of him, his dark world dissolves with him and all that is left is beauty. It's a simple but powerful message, delivered through some yearning long notes held brilliantly by Gray.

'From Here You Can Almost See The Sea' is equally fantastic, but in a completely different way. On the surface this is a very pleasant, cheery song about friendship and the brighter side of life. But if you dig a little deeper and really listen to the lyrics, you discover an eerie undercurrent to all this seaside cheer. The chord progression in the 'chorus', with the strange but beautiful minor chord, lifts this above so much romantic singer-songwriter dross. The lyrics are also cryptic, marrying a bright tone with odd and creepy imagery, e.g. The water's so cold it makes your bones ache. Throughout Gray is on fine form both on guitar and on vocals, and the middle eights which crop up twice are simply joyous.

'Ain't No Love' is probably the best song on the album. After some tinkly chords and playground sampling, the piano comes in to give us some grounding for this fast-moving, fast-thinking love song. Gray proves himself once again to be a master of ambiguity, serving up a set of lyrics which simultaneously paint pictures of a healthy relationship and of a lonely, broken man: This ain't no love that's guiding me either means that he does not love the girl, or that such a word is no longer adequate in describing how deeply he cares for her. The lyrics trip off Gray's tongue and into our ears at such a relentless pace that it will take several listens to absorb everything. Lines like Tomorrow girl I'll buy you chips/ A lollipop to stain your lips/ And it'll all be right as rain fit seamlessly around the bittersweet melody, and the result is something truly wonderful.

What a shame, then, that 'Hospital Food' should be such a let-down. This is the second single from the album and it deserves a lot of the bad press it got. Whereas elsewhere on the album Gray has let the lyrics dominate and fitted the music around them, here it is the other way around. That in itself is no bad thing, but when Gray has demonstrated that he is a great lyricist first and foremost, it makes no sense to bury his musings under a bland three-chord pop song. Had he focussed less on producing all the various synthesiser parts, this would have been a lot better.

Thankfully, the closing tracks more than make up for this little wobble. Both are very long - 6:45 and 5:05 respectfully - but they earn the right to go on this long by constantly delivering quality. 'Now And Always' has a great beginning in which the percussion is pushed to the back and the piano is muffled, allowing Gray's voice to dominate once again. By the time you reach this point on the album, you would think that he can't offer anything new beyond another vocal workout. But he surprises us with some well-timed double-tracked harmonies, coupled with pure production and a great fade-out. 'Disappearing World' is more sober, but no less charming in a glacial kind of way. Once again the music is kept simple but effective, with the piano chords creating a rolling, looping melody over which the vocals can flow. There is a minimalist beauty to this, but unlike other minimalists like Sigur Ros this is never cold, at least not overbearingly. It's a perfect way to end the album, being downbeat yet hopeful.

Life In Slow Motion is easily David Gray's best album. Every song on here - with one small exception - is expertly crafted with lyrics which are packed with meaning and beauty. And the cohesion between them, the sense of something holistic, is far stronger on here than it is on either White Ladder or A New Day At Midnight. This is an album about ambivalence; the musical sense is one of pleasant contentment, but the words set to the music are surprisingly eerie. This allows the album to be enjoyed as easy-listening background noise, but it also rewards the listener if they wish to really concentrate on the songs and find something deeper in them. An understated masterpiece from a very underated musician.

4.20 out 0f 5