- 27 Nov 19
21 years ago today, David Gray released his fourth studio album, White Ladder – which went on to become the biggest selling record of all time in Ireland. To celebrate, we're revisiting our original review of the classic album.
When David Gray burst onto the scene five years ago with A Century Ends you would have got long odds on anyone ever being credited with ‘programming’ on a record which bore his name. Back then, Gray seemed to be pursuing a lonely path, intent on liberating acoustic songwriting from the clutches of moaning, self-indulgent bores.
For this, his fourth album, the change of direction long apparent in his live performances is finally made manifest on record. The opening track, ‘Please Forgive Me’, underpinned by sequenced rhythms, is an obvious example. Even a cursory listen, however, will reassure fans that there is no chance of Gray’s unique lyrical talent being lost as he embraces a more contemporary sound. Despite the ominous title, it is a love song on which he intones, “Feels like lightnin’ running through my veins / Everytime I look at you.”
The mood is generally introspective and there is the occasional misfire. The title track, for example, meanders around too much for its own good, while ‘We’re Not Right’ is less than essential.
When Gray hits his stride, though, the effect is truly awesome. ‘Silver Lining’ wraps lines of gorgeous romanticism around a guitar part which insinuates itself in your head. ‘This Year’s Love’, meanwhile, recalls Tom Waits at his peak (albeit with a Welsh accent). The words are those of a man who refuses to let past disappointment warp his dreams – he is still seeking transcendent love, and willing it to be more than a brief illusion : “Won’t you kiss me on that midnight street? / Sweep me off my feet / Singing ‘Ain’t this life so sweet’ / This year’s love, it better last.”
There is one further unexpected turn: the album closes with Gray’s earnest guitar ’n’ brushes cover of Soft Cell’s ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’. In clumsier hands this would be an extremely bitter note to go out on; Gray instead infuses it with regret as well as venom, segueing into lines from Van’s ‘Into the Mystic’ and ‘Madame George’.
That David Gray is not a major cult hero anywhere outside Ireland remains unfathomable. The man is simply the greatest lyricist in popular music today. Is there anyone else out there capable of writing lines like these (from ‘Silver Lining’)?
“Step into the silence / Take it in your own two hands / Scatter it like diamonds / All across these lands / Blaze it in the morning / Wear it like an iron skin / The only things worth living for / Are innocence and magic, Amen.”
This is a passionate, honest, evocative and beautiful album. Buy it.
David Gray brings his White Ladder 20th Anniversary Tour to Ireland next year, with gigs at the SSE Arena, Belfast (March 31), the 3Arena, Dublin (April 2-4) and Irish Independent Park, Cork (June 20).