It’s tempting to call Gold in a Brass Age the best overall album David Gray has made in two decades. In some ways, it’s been Gray’s burden to have everything he’s made since 1998 compared to that year’s White Ladder– the hit that announced him as a star to the world, (poetic for an underdog album that, according to legend, was largely made in Gray’s bedroom). To his credit, the massive success of White Ladder seemed only to inspire Gray to move further afield of it creatively in each subsequent release, dabbling with lush string arrangements or inviting Annie Lennox to guest on a song at a recording studio he’d bought (from her). So, after five proper albums over the past 20 or so years, this latest is maybe the furthest from the simplicity of White Ladder, and paradoxically, the closest to it.
Gray, co-producing with Ben de Vries, has turned in a set of songs that embrace the bedroom arranger in him, acutely blending calculated layers of electronic percussion with the close-mic intimacy of his uncontaminated and penetrating voice. “The Sapling” is a powerhouse opener, working off a delicate vocal that grows more ferocious as the stacks of instrumentation pile up underneath it. Dancing with a drum program on the title track, or letting lonely guitar punctuate the auto-tune gone to excess, (intentionally), as he sings of the ghost of Christmas past on “Furthering,” Gray steers into his experimental skids just enough to be fun, never too much to be indulgent.
The upbeat clicks and claps of “A Tight Ship” and the low-key dimming of “Watching the Waves” are contrasting to each other, and to the subsequent chiming guitars and turned-loose vocal on “Hall of Mirrors,” yet all still feel of a piece. In fact, the songs slide into one another for a continuous listening experience that, perhaps, thumbs its nose at those eager to cherry-pick individual tracks. So many of these songs move with an inevitability towards a conclusion, if not a resolution, only to morph into the next offering, not unlike the life of the butterfly depicted on the cover.
Though White Ladder was not a concept album, it did, however, possess a kind of symbiotic relationship from beginning to end and within. There are similarities to that approach here, as the slower, pensive “Hurricane Season,” ultimately turns optimistic at its dénouement, and the up-tempo “If 8 Were 9” closes the often sober album rather brightly. Still, it’s the overall effect of the album taken as a whole statement that makes it a topper. It isn’t that Gray hasn’t written some terrific songs in the past two decades, but often those songs succeeded as stand-alone offerings appealing to a downloading world. There may not be that sing-along single on this record; instead as a meticulous, conscious collection of music it ends up being something much better; like gold in a brass age.