David Gray’s brand-new 11-track album Mutineers is a historic release, but we won’t really know this until his next album appears, tentatively titled The Ghost of Babylon. That album will be entirely acoustic and will twist and press every early Gray influence into lyrics and music of exceptional lucidity, clarity, and dexterity. We’re waiting.
Long-time David Gray fans have known Gray was haunted after the stunning White Ladder, now 16 years old. He wasn’t haunted by fame, although that was hard, and although he raised concerns when he wound down his touring in 2002-2005 because of exhaustion. No, Gray’s haunting had to do with style. What should a song sound like if you were a true singer-songwriter in 1998? It couldn’t sound like Dylan or Donovan. It couldn’t sound like Petty. It couldn’t sound like Paul Simon. It couldn’t sound like the Appalachian genius Jean Ritchie. It had to have major-minor modulations, synthesizers, loops. Techno-folk. That would be true to our roots, right? We all live in a techno-folk world, in which everything and nothing is real. So, perhaps unintentionally, “Babylon” became the anthem of that world in 1998.
The rest has been bizarre. Shine, The Best of the Early Years (1993-1998) came out in 2007, the same year as Gray’sGreatest Hits. It’s ballsy releasing a “greatest hits’ album less that a decade after your first great-hit album, but it’s even weirder using Year Nine as a full-scale retrospective year. It’s like saying, “Hi, I’m David Gray. I was fully formed in 1998. Let me give you two memoirs of my years up to and including that final year. Then you’ll know everything you need to know.”
I don’t mean to ignore the 2005 Life in Slow Motion or the 2009 Draw the Line, but I do think the memory-lane trip is why Mutineers has the feel of a come-back album. A generation earlier, its direct comparison would have been to Jackson Browne’s 1993 I’m Alive. But what is Gray coming back from? There are no hideous stories, no suicides or heartwrenching breakups: interestingly, his private life remains both relatively quiet and, as far as any reasonably not-nosy person can tell, relatively happy. So—why the comeback?
Comebacks can be “from” or “to,” and Mutineers is a comeback to the music of Gray’s formative years. It’s just that it’s the prequel album.
Yes, Mutineers is very good. Yes, if you liked White Ladder, there are a handful of songs among the eleven here that will please you. But it is, fundamentally, a strange album. The title and title track are both giveaways: there’s a mutiny in this collection, not just a song about a mutiny. Gray is the mutineer, only it’s the Gray who wants to sound different. And he’s generally cagey, which is why the mutiny may succeed. The kicky opening track, “Back in the World,” serves as Gray’s anthem that he’s back on track, which might work if it weren’t a direct echo of Tom Petty’s 1991 “Learning to Fly.” Bad? Not in the context of this album. Interesting. We’re hearing Gray’s musical influences throughout. Paul Simon’s 1986 Graceland and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, for example, haunt the ninth track, “The Incredible.” Jackson Browne is hardwired into the structure of the album. And Gray haunts himself in “Mutineers” and “Beautiful Agony”: if you want the old Gray, he’s right here. But what’s so fascinating about the other voices in this album is that they’re only once (with Petty) explicit. Everywhere else they’re tentative, as if Gray were just emerging from a dream when he wrote this. In other songs, of course, Gray is relying on loops that could come straight from GarageBand, so self-consciously techno are they. It’s a karmic twist of fate that Mutineers and Lana del Ray’s Ultraviolence came out virtually simultaneously, since del Ray is a true techno-pop genius and Gray—though a genius in other ways—is out of his league here.
After the 1984 Born in the USA and the 1987 Tunnel of Love, The Boss had reached a kind of creative limit, but he hadn’t tapped out the heart behind the 1982 Nebraska. He revisited that album with his 1995 The Ghost of Tom Joad, an absolutely brilliant piece that sounds on the one hand as if it should just be played in a dark parlor and on the other hand as if it could lay out the road map for Springsteen all the way up to the 2014 American Beauty. The Ghost of Tom Joad is the kind of album Gray has to produce. He is a brilliant songwriter, trapped in a particular mode still but listening—you can hear how closely he’s listening for any exit in Mutineers. He’s so close. I am first in line for The Ghost of Babylon.
Rating: 7 out of 10.
Tom Simmons is an associate professor of English at the University of Iowa. His seven books are all still available on amazon under the name “Thomas Simmons,” although he hasn’t read any of them since 2012. A singer-songwriter, he plays twice a month at one of his two favorite venues, The Mill in Iowa City (the other favorite venue, The Hideout in Chicago, hasn’t actually invited him yet).