A great album doesn’t have to make a grand political statement or adhere to some lofty concept. Sometimes a great album is nothing more than a collection of well-written and beautifully produced songs.
Few musicians know this better than David Gray. In a career spanning over three decades, the journeyman U.K. singer-songwriter has quietly crafted one understated masterwork after another (the most recent, Skellig, arrived in February). Gray’s magnum opus and most beloved work, however, remains 1998’s White Ladder.
Though the record—Gray’s fourth—failed to chart in Britain at first, things changed when a young upstart named Dave Matthews released it stateside on his ATO label two years later. Gray rocketed to global superstardom overnight, and Ladder became a mainstay on the U.K. Top 100 for the next three years. To this day, it’s one of the all-time bestsellers in the British isles, particularly in Ireland—where, at one point, one in every four residents owned a copy.
All of that certainly speaks to Gray’s mass commercial appeal, but what of the quality of his work? The truth is that it’s rather difficult to write about what makes a record like White Ladder so remarkable because Gray’s approach is so disarmingly simple. His lyrics are direct and unadorned, his musical palette—a blend of acoustic folk and techno/trip-hop elements commonly known as “folktronica”—frankly limited. It’d be easy enough for the layman to write off Gray as a vapid pop tunesmith. Gray himself admitted in a 2010 interview that, while proud of the record, he felt its success placed him in a very specific box:
“I still pinch myself when I think about it. That record will be there for ever. It just connected in such a big way with people…It was the period that came after that was difficult…I’m sort of seen as a pop artist. I’m dismissed as slight, I’d say, because of White Ladder.”
Ultimately, the best way to understand this album’s brilliance is to simply sit down and listen to the thing. You hear the tasteful backdrops he’s concocted alongside producers Iestyn Polson and Craig McClune—not complex, sure, but lush and meticulously woven, the ideal bedrock for Gray’s emotional musings. You experience his unmistakable delivery: a gruff, impassioned growl that recalls a young Bob Dylan, with a unique percussiveness not unlike Gray’s idol Van Morrison. (He even interpolates the latter’s “Madame George” and “Into the Mystic” on Ladder toward the end of an equally-epic cover of Soft Cell’s “Say Hello Wave Goodbye.”) And you quickly realize that there are no throwaway moments on White Ladder—when this fella sings something, he means it. Even all the whoas and yeahs and my-mys burst with a deeply-felt potency.
The word “cinematic” comes to mind here. Take opener “Please Forgive Me,” with its intense flood of piano and synthesized strings girded by a drum-machine loop like running footsteps. It easily could (and still does) pop up at a pivotal moment in many a sappy romcom.
Not a bad thing, of course, as there’s a certain subtle and affecting charm to how Gray captures the feeling of so achingly, desperately wanting someone that you come off a dumbstruck idiot in their presence. In his lovesick suffering, he paraphrases Jesus on the cross: “Please forgive me if I act a little strange/For I know not what I do/Feels like lightning running through my veins/Every time I look at you.” When he croons about “how good it feels/When you look at me that way,” you feel his exuberance as if she were flashing you that look. The real kicker, though, comes in the final verse as we learn just how nuts he is about her: “I got half a mind to scream out loud/I got half a mind to die/So I won’t ever have to lose you, girl/Won’t ever have to say goodbye.” Damn.
Ivor Novello Award-winning cut “Babylon” is the biggest hit off the disc, and for good reason. It remains a flawless pop song over 20 years on, buoyed by that playful guitar/piano hook that’s probably chiming in your brain as we speak. The track demonstrates Gray’s gift for pinpointing and illuminating life’s specific moments—in this case, a lonely, contemplative weekend in London. He walks us through it one color-coded day at a time: a dull Friday evening at home “turning over TV stations,” followed by a hedonistic night of partying and a hungover Sunday spent “kicking through the autumn leaves/Wondering where it is you might be going to.” All the while, he dearly misses the love of his life, kicking himself for not being able to overcome his fear and make his feelings known.
And then it happens: he’s heading back, he turns, and she’s right there! It’s the kind of thing that only happens in the movies, or the words of a song—it makes no sense and it makes all the sense in the world. Gray’s now-iconic refrain—“Let go your heart/Let go your head/And feel it now”—drives the message home: Surrender to the wild, brazen uncertainty of love. It can be as insane and extravagant as life in that titular biblical city, and it may not work out in the end, but how will you know unless you try?
In fact, if a batch of solid tunes isn’t enough for you and you simply must unite Ladder’s songs under the umbrella of a single “concept,” that might be the difficulties that come with launching (and staying in) a romance. These range from depression (“Seems these days I don’t feel anything/Unless it cuts me right down to the bone”) to substance abuse (“Can’t tell the bottle from the mountaintop/No, we’re not right”) to the aforementioned terror of giving oneself over to the pain and mayhem (“…it takes something more this time/Than sweet, sweet lies, oh, now/Before I open up my arms and fall/Losing all control/Every dream inside my soul”).
By the time Gray and his lover “Sail Away” on the wispy seas of Rufus Wainwright/Baz Luhrmann collaborator Marius de Vries’ magnificent co-production, it seems they’ve fully embraced the mantra of the frosty, kinetic title track: “There’s no rhyme or reason to love/This sweet, sweet love.” They’re Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard walking off together at the end of Modern Times, unsure of what lies ahead but content to at least have one another.
If Gray’s songwriting seems straightforward or commonplace, perhaps it’s because of the universality of the feelings he expresses. We’ve all been hurt by those we care for in some way. We’ve all allowed lonesomeness, doubt and insecurity numb us to the outside world. We’ve all feared the vulnerability that comes with opening ourselves up to another person. We’ve all found euphoria at the very thought of a crush or significant other. In short, we’ve all been in love. It takes a special kind of songwriter to chronicle the human condition so succinctly yet so poetically, and Gray is one of them.
Yeah, that’s all fine and good, but why are we talking about a record that sold a shitload of units in the early oughts? For the answer to that, you need only give your local Top 40 station a listen. Strands of White Ladder’s DNA, for better or for worse, live on in the work of all those scrappy, lovelorn, heart-on-sleeve boy troubadours who’ve recently launched something of a third British Invasion. You know the type—your Ed Sheerans, your James Bays, your Lewis Capaldis and the like. If you’ve ever gotten teary-eyed at a George Ezra song on the radio, you’ve got David Gray to thank for it.
Make no mistake, Gray is indeed a “pop artist.” But that’s only a problem if you view “pop” as a pejorative label. Commercial success doesn’t negate art’s value any more than failure does. The best popular music can speak to profound truths within our souls, give words to feelings we didn’t even know we had. White Ladder stands as a testament not only to this power, but to Gray’s use of his own powers to conjure beautiful songs from the simplest of places. It may be pop, but it sure as hell ain’t “slight.”