THE VICTORIAN ENFORCER GETS CANDID
October 22, 2009
By ROBERT BIESELIN,
The look is called the "Victorian Enforcer," and it's achieved by layering a three-piece pinstriped suit over a tie-less, salmon-hued oxford and standing in front of the corroding plaster walls of an old East London Music Hall with your hands hanging at your sides like a gangster ready to draw a .38 or a little boy caught in a lie and ready to confess.
Shooting from the hip during a recent interview singer/songwriter David Gray admits the lie: It's a prefabricated scene the result of a "styled shoot." Nevertheless, it's an honest photo, he said a perfect photo for the cover of his new album ("Draw the Line") a poised (if posed) photo that "makes a statement" and, above all else, says wait for it "Here I am."
Here I am?
It seems like a simple statement from a man who makes a living penning poetic lines about love/loss/life.
But hold on, there's much more to it than first meets the eye or ear.
"This record's very outward," he said, resting up before a 22-date tour that'll hit Manhattan on Saturday. "It's not so inwardly focused. But still, taken as a whole, the lyrics are very revealing. When I sit there and read them back, when I looked at the final artwork arrived on my lap, I realized what a lot of myself I've put into it."
In this way, "Draw the Line" seems to have offered its author a "here you are" revelation.
Gray likened songwriting to the work of a painter "putting the light in the portrait's eye and the little splash of color on the cheek that make it seem like a person is standing right there in front of you."
In the past, this made for passionate products (1996's "Sell, Sell, Sell," with its equal parts fire, brood and flume), quasi-experimental works (his 1998 breakthrough "White Ladder," which merged folk rock and electronic drum tracks) or cathartic ones (2002's "A New Day at Midnight," which dealt with his father's death).
"Draw the Line," with its piano-focused backlines, shuffles all of that with some here-and-now urgency.
On the album's title track and its closer, "Full Steam," the proclamation "Here I am" sounds like a challenge, asserting its author's responsibility and rage like an update of "Network's" cry "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"
"I think it's straight from the heart. The theme is of how to draw the line, how to survive, how to stay vital and unpolluted yet take part in the world," he said. "Part of the problem is we're too aware, and it's crippling: this tide of information, misinformation, half-truth, downright lies and sheer propaganda that we guzzle greedily every moment of the day."
Yet despite that cynical outburst, the 41-year-old (and his new album) retain a pure facet that speaks to (and from) that little boy on the album's cover.
On "Jackdaw," a song about invitation and redemption, the Englishman lectures that you can't find your way in love/life "pining for lost innocence," recalling the theme of "a childlike state of wonderment" that made "Silver Lining" a "White Ladder" standout.
"There's a certain youthful impetuousness to life that disappears, and we get mired in the uncertainties of middle age, and that's what 'Jackdaw' is pining for: the simplicities of love," he said, going on to compare a long-term relationship to the embers of a dying fire. "You just need to kindle the fire again, but how the hell do you do it?"
His answer is actually pretty sweet: "Throw off all this accumulated detritus and wealth and ornament that life takes upon itself and just go with the simplest feeling."
Gray offered one final metaphor for creation/transformation to go with the painter's portrait and the fire's embers:
"In music or any act of creation, you travel to places and become new things," he said, mentioning the song "Transformation" from the new album. "And that sort of takes you back to that childhood, crouching in the bushes being quiet, hiding in your imaginary house of leaves with the water suddenly lapping at your feet."
As he says it, you can almost hear the music, almost see the leaves start to part, almost imagine a pure-eyed little boy in an oversize three-piece suit jump out of the wet bushes and scream, "Here I am!"
Copyright 2009 Bergen Record Corp. All rights reserved.