published: 10 /
Eoghan Lyng reflects on Irish singer-songwriter David Gray's groundbreaking fourth album 'White Ladder', which has just been re-released in a remastered 20th Anniversary edition.
It's impossible to underestimate the indelible impact David Gray held in 2000. With 'White Ladder', Gray reignited the pastoral-pop formula, a formula similar soul bearing artists James Blunt and Ed Sheeran benefited from. It sold over three million copies in the UK, spent six weeks on top of the Irish Charts before earning Gray a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. For the want of a better term, 'White Ladder' is a classic.
It's one of the tent-poles of modern music, every bit as dazzling in 2020 as it was in 2000. That it should cover the synth heavy Soft Cell in its mix only proved how confident Gray was in his acoustic numbers. Gray's "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye" captured a melancholy only hinted at in Marc Almond's original. Lying down to get a low, breathy sound only captured the alienation Gray's most important album entirely inhabited.
Then there was "Please Forgive Me", featuring a powerful drum sound, Gray's lovetorn no.18 single. It pre-empted, popularised and pioneered folktronica, placing as much importance on the backbeat that pushed the more melodic guitar to the forefront. So did "Babylon", Gray's highest charting ballad, and "Sail Away". Together, the three numbers offered listeners a more dignified palette sorely lacking in Noel Gallagher's contemporary rockers. "White Ladder", the artists' expression of seclusion, proved stronger still, although this was a track salvaged for those who bought the album alone.
And there were many who did, millions in fact. ""Its success came from nowhere," Gray told 'Daily Star', "..and it changed how the business thought about what music should be. Since then, there have been lots of artists who've taken it on and done their own thing." Eloquently lending his voice to his listeners, the album's wistful humanity won him much favour. Where Britpop had been boisterous, Gray's work was elegiac, sifting audiences to more sophisticated territories. The hauntingly romantic "This Year's Love" fashioned itself a soundtrack must: 'The Girl Next Door', 'Crazy/Beautiful' and 'How I Met Your Mother' each sampled the track.
It's primarily a two man job, Gray joined on keyboards and drums by Craig McClune. Otherwise, the album is based on atmosphere over ardor, with a notable exception made to the stirling Irish violinist Colm Mac Con Iomaire. Mixed with Gray's chirpy guitars comes Con Iomaire's haunting "Silver Lining" arpeggios, matching the classical with the caustic. Apropos to culture, Gray still holds a firm fan base in Ireland to this day. Celebrating the Emerald Isle's poetry, Gray threw in some scat references to the mercurial Van Morrison.
The acoustic basis of the album, together with its sparkled beat brimming in the backdrop, has kept the album's freshness (particularly at a time when life feels empty of it). For Gray, the album became both an artistic triumph and enduring albatross. Such was his success that to turn back to his more rustic roots seemed a fallback, but to continue down his route seemed entrepreneurial. 'A New Day at Midnight' suffered from not being ''White Ladder' and this sophomore slump continued for the next ten years. It was 2019's cannily named 'Gold In a Brass Age' that proved his finest work in near twenty years, though that too was overshadowed by its older sibling's advancing birthday. In time honoured tradition, Gray had to bow to his past work,though that work was more than satisfying for one writer to produce.
Make no mistake: 'White Ladder' is deserving of every bit of praise thrown its way. The epochal record still stands up as the finest of its ilk, waving the flag for the buskers and singers that carry through the celebrated charts. Here's to twenty more years!
Please Forgive Me
My Oh My
We're Not Right
This Year's Love
Say Hello, Wave Goodbye
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