Review Summary: Life in slow motion somehow it don’t feel real; a journey through imagery and mellow melodies, Gray's return to form feels dream-like and soothing, but requires a patient listener.
Singer-songwriters have a job on at times to set themselves apart. There's only so much one person can do with a guitar or piano, and however many session musicians or more permanent members they draft in, the songs are usually centred largely around the vocalist's instrument(s). In recent years, we've seen people like Laura Marling try to differentiate themselves with their conversational style; we've seen Pete Doherty stumble sporadically through his solo material sounding high even when he's (apparently) not. We've seen Imogen Heap go all electro on us.
Interesting as all this is, and natural as it may be to such talented artists, there remains a subtle but beautiful art to the aforementioned pure form of the 'genre'. Calling singer-songwriters a genre in themselves is obviously a flawed description, as even the three previously noted names span a range of musical styles and quirks, but the connecting factor is the amount of control the artist has over the final product; beyond that, the lyrics are also often under great scrutiny. If we take these two criteria and delve into the archives, one name crops up as debatably the modern master, and that name is David Gray.
1999's White Ladder
propelled Gray to mainstream fame with radio hits like Babylon
and This Year's Love
, and pushed him further into the limelight with the latter's inclusion on the sound track of The Girl Next Door. Three years on his return A New Day At Midnight
failed to maintain the momentum that he had built up at the end of the millennium, so a lot rode on Life in Slow Motion
. Make or break? Perhaps not quite, but it's fair to say this album needed to make people take notice again. They kicked the campaign off with lead single One I Love
and despite it winning a few hearts this side of the Atlantic, it wasn't the start Atlantic Records would've hoped for.
Fortunately you have no need to worry. Gray's 7th studio album is a return to form and actually showcases some of his best work so far. The bland lead single is the album's easiest song; its company is a stunning work of mellow, melodic pop which never drags, consistently performs and occasionally tugs so hard at your heartstrings you'll wonder what's hit you.
There are up-tempo tracks - single Hospital Food
is one of them which starts off sounding almost like a Christmas song but keeps its pace and life, trapped inside an energetic beat and Gray's solid, smooth vocals. Slow Motion
, the near title-track, is the flip-side to this; very down-tempo and piano-led, its repetition both lyrically and musically should probably irritate the listener, but instead it is captivating and the melody sticks with you. Nos Da Cariad
showcases the darker side of the record's sound and lyrics, layering pianos and whispered backing vocals to form a gloom not heard elsewhere on the album.
For all Gray's talent in writing fantastic pop music, there are a few songs here that just seem to pass by without much happening. From Here You Can Almost See The Sea
are two of these; despite their choruses being deservingly intoxicating, their verses leave a lot to be desired; they range from (very occasionally) grating to (more frequently) just existing.
The pièce de résistance lyrically is the moving Ain't No Love
, a stand-out track in any case, which has him pondering life's tedium and apparent pointlessness, claiming it ain't no love that's guiding me
. Not a single wasted line or word of filler, he states his point for the futility of life so well that it's difficult to avoid being affected. Strangely, though, the song has an uplifting quality, despite none of the lyrics redeeming the depressing message. Maybe it's just that the part of you that cares has died. Who knows.
A similar technique is used in another stand-out, Disappearing World
, the 5-minute closer to the album. Amidst a few reflective piano chords, Gray's lyrics slide and melt, lamenting the state of the leafless wood
and trailing wire
, painting a barren picture of the modern world, but there is some restless, inescapable hope seeping through his tone and that of the piano; when he sings don't it look so pretty, this disappearing world?
and the album closes, you're left, not distressed, but strangely optimistic.
Life in Slow Motion
is not an album which rewards on first listen, and nor, really, is it 'easy-listening', as this genre so often becomes. It takes a patient listener to appreciate the many moments of genius on show here, and where White Ladder
had songs that you could whistle, a lot of the melodies and lyrics here are too heavy to give you or an audience the buzz of Babylon. But if you go into this record expecting a touching, intelligent and melodic slow-burner, you'll be rewarded by this album more than any other I've heard since the turn of the millennium.