David Gray: the beautiful agony of Mutineers
White Ladder brought him huge success, but it set him on a creative tailspin that he’s only now managed to snap out of
Even when he’s sitting on a comfy sofa, with a glass of iced water resting on a nearby table, David Gray’s demeanour seems taut, tense and not a little constricted. It was exactly the same more than 20 years ago when the Welsh singer-songwriter released his first pair of albums, A Century Ends (1993) and Flesh (1994), two records that crackled with the diatribes of Bob Dylan and the knots of Van Morrison, and fused them into a new kind of toughness: acidic, acerbic and melodic.
It’s safe to say that Gray – older and considerably richer due to the immense success of 1998’s White Ladder – hasn’t changed that much.
When asked what his default setting is, he repeats the question twice before allowing it to drift away. When then asked what he does to relax, he laughs out loud, but it isn’t a very funny kind of laugh.
Next question. All this noted, Gray is extremely polite, but the undercurrent of barely contained tension remains throughout, decreasing noticeably only when the conversation draws to a close.
Gray is at, if not a crossroads, then yet another departure point. His latest album, Mutineers – his first since 2010’s Foundling – sees him reconnect with a fervour he seemed to have lost following his acceptance by the mainstream audience that lapped up White Ladder and subsequent albums A New Day at Midnight (2002) and Life in Slow Motion (2005). He admits to a loss of form during the latter half of the Noughties; Mutineers sees a resurgence of energy and focus that, he says, reconnects with his splenetic early work.
“I think the new album has raw energy, a rebirth. If that sounds profound, then so be it. When I look back on the early albums I just think of how ham-fisted the delivery is; how it’s impossible to recapture all that piss and vinegar, which I feel sure is only yours to give just the once. It’s musical adolescence in a way, and then you grow up.
“I’m a different man now, I’ve moved on. I don’t hanker to return to anything, and besides, it’s never what you thought it was. It got torn up some years ago, but now it’s back, repaired. Self-consciousness is the enemy, and so you have to find a way to get away from yourself.”
This is something that he had to do, he reveals, following his Noughties slump, which he implies was as much creative as personal. After White Ladder brought him success and money, he ventured unwittingly into some kind of foggy wilderness. He looks pained recalling it.