Gold In A Brass Age
(IHT Records/AWAL Recordings)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Somewhere in the career path of nearly all veteran songwriters comes a time when they need to change their methods to remain fresh. Icons such as Paul Simon, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell understood this and transformed their styles dramatically. Legends like Neil Young, Ry Cooder and Van Morrison have practically made careers out of stimulating, some might say confounding, their audiences by refining and altering their artistic vision for decades.
While David Gray isn’t quite in that A-list company (although three of his releases have hit the top spot on the UK charts), he still has been a professional musician for 25 years, with ten previous studio sets under his belt. It’s apparently time to reassess his modus operandi as it pertains to songwriting, which is what he does on album 11. Many in his position take a “back-to-basics” attitude, scaling down their approach and recording techniques to a more raw, live, and less commercially leaning style. Gray adheres to the latter part of that, but instead gravitates to a modernized “cut and paste” method with an emphasis on electronics to expand his creative horizons. He and producer/multi-instrumentalist Ben de Vries splice samples of everything from horns, percussion, backing vocals, strings and even a snipped opera piece into these 11 songs. That creates a fascinating aural trip where the listener is kept guessing which direction the tunes are going.
Gray has used electronics to enhance his recordings before, but this method of inserting pieces here and there into each track is new to him. His voice maintains its soulful honey-and-grits character, although he’s sounding smoother on ballads such as “Furthering” and “Mallory,” even occasionally skipping into falsetto mode. Acoustic instruments dance with more synthesized ones in the cascading “Hall Of Mirrors,” creating a musical tension and release that’s viscerally engaging even if it’s the result of studio tinkering.
Lyrics are appropriately murky and often odd (“Now sleek to dive in mirrored pools/ so sleek to dive in mirrored pools/ In mirrored pools so sleek to dive” seems awfully repetitive) but usually not the point of distraction. In this process though, Gray has sidelined, but not totally abandoned, typical song structure, allowing the freedom to express himself in ways that weren’t possible in stricter surroundings. As you might expect, it takes a few spins for this to sink in and those looking for easy hooks in choruses won’t always be rewarded as tracks unfurl on their own terms.
Even with all the experimentation, this remains a recognizable David Gray album with subdued melodies, unforced vocals, subtle acoustics and honest lyrics even in their more obtuse state. Perhaps he didn’t go far enough off the ledge when rejiggering his craft. But at least Gray is trying something different, pushing his own relatively well defined envelope and nudging his way into a more challenging environment.