The UK singer-songwriter’s 1998 album remains a phenomenon that defies explanation: a modest collection of love songs recorded in his bedroom by an Everyman who was suddenly Everywhere.
David Gray was once renowned for how famous he wasn’t—a singer-songwriter’s singer-songwriter, denied mainstream success in a way that registered as injustice by his cult of fans and admirers. Abandoned by EMI after 1996’s self-deprecatingly titled Sell, Sell, Sell did the exact opposite, the British musician recorded his fourth album, White Ladder, in his apartment and released it on his own IHT label; the record subsequently achieved the rarefied level of ubiquity where its omnipresence became one of its defining characteristics.
In a snide yet mostly positive review of White Ladder’s 2000 reissue, NME imagined Gray’s “eyes-closed sincerity” soundtracking mortgage ads until the end of time. “A whole generation of couples stared meaningfully into each other’s eyes as they performed their first wedding dance to ‘This Year’s Love,’” The Guardian quipped in 2010. “Without reverting to excessive hyperbole, there wasn’t a home in Ireland that didn’t own a copy of David Gray’s breakthrough album,” one local paper claimed. In a nation that produced U2, the Corrs, and Clannad, White Ladder remains the best-selling album of all time.
By 2001, Gray was on a level with Eminem and Britney Spears—at least in the sense that his music was used alongside theirs to torture prisoners at Guantanamo; Haj Ali, photographed as a hooded prisoner of war in Abu Ghraib, claimed that he was stripped, handcuffed and forced to hear a loop of “Babylon” so loud that he feared his head would burst. Twenty years later, that Gray never really felt as famous or infamous as Eminem or Britney Spears only enhances White Ladder’s aura as an isolated incident that defies explanation: a modest collection of songs about lost love, drinking, and drinking over lost love, by an Everyman who was soon Everywhere.
Adding 1998’s state-of-the-art electronic beats to his sturdy, occasionally sappy folk-pop gave White Ladder an air of novelty, even if it was hardly anomalous during a time when the coffee house and the club converged into a veritable subgenre: Think, for instance, of Everything But the Girl’s Walking Wounded, or Beth Orton collaborating with William Orbit. Though “Sail Away” featured production from Marius de Vries, a collaborator of Bjork and Madonna, White Ladder wasn’t intended as a reinvention. The newly aerodynamic production contrasted with Gray’s endearingly po-faced image, emphasizing what he already was: a self-described sincere guy with a guitar, and also a man slightly out of time, someone watching from the periphery as others less burdened by regret lived, laughed, and danced without care. Paul Hartnoll of Orbital weaponized the four-on-the-floor thump that brings “Please Forgive Me” to a climax into an unlikely Ibiza smash, while the single “Babylon” was given an industrial remake. But on White Ladder, these underlying elements of dance music sounded like they were being experienced from a safe and sad distance, a drum’n’bass track muffled by a midnight cab’s dull engine roar. The synthetic percussion of White Ladder betrays its origins as a home-recorded folktronica album—the hollowed-out trip-hop drums of “Nightblindness” bear the requisite influence of Radiohead’s “Climbing Up the Walls,” while the lightly carbonated shuffle of “Silver Lining” makes Gray sound like he’s suspended in a glass of OK Cola for six minutes.
“Please Forgive Me” was also included in the pilot of Scrubs, more indicative than its club cameos of the album’s future in meet-cute media. Half of its 10 songs were released as singles, so White Ladder clearly worked as a collection of episodes that could be experienced discretely and repeatedly. There’s no linguistic subtext to any song on White Ladder: Recall that Gray’s sincerity and plainspokenness are his main selling points, but the lack of specificity leaves space for emotional interpretation. “This Year’s Love” likely did soundtrack countless wedding dances and many drank alone to it. The pleas of “Sail Away” are either bravely passionate or absolutely desperate; “We’re Not Right” can either be a blithe acceptance of alcoholism’s grim fate or an agent for change. “Babylon” tells a story with a clear conflict and resolution that still leaves room for projection—to tell someone you love them or that you loved them or even that you wish you had told them these things. “If you want it, come and get it for crying out loud,” and whatever it was, you could get it: “Babylon” was a festival anthem disguised as a counterbalance to the monsters of Glastonbury.
The frontloading of its biggest, most unabashedly optimistic hits lends White Ladder a narrative thread: As I always imagined it, here was a skeptical romantic hitting the bars with a precarious hope of finding connection; slowly sulking into the corner while his friends laughed and flirted; bitterly going home to commiserate with his favorite records. It all ends with an unfathomably sad, nine-minute cover of Soft Cell’s “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” that interpolates Van Morrison’s “Madame George” and “Into the Mystic.”
White Ladder might not exist without Dave Matthews; Gray promoted the album while opening for Matthews, a close friend and a notable influence on White Ladder’s more grating vocal tics—on the title track, when Gray wheezes, “There’s no rhyme or reeeeeason,” a John Popper harmonica solo wouldn’t be entirely unexpected. Eventually, Gray made the relationship officially symbiotic when White Ladder became the inaugural release on Matthew’s ATO Records, the eventual launchpad for similarly rootsy sensations like My Morning Jacket and Alabama Shakes.
A curious thing happened: Gray’s album, clearly adult-contemporary in both sound and subject matter, became a hit with people a decade younger than the 30-something singer-songwriter. “Gap-year students mouthed the lyrics to ‘Sail Away’ as they backpacked around Nepal. Young professionals listened to ‘Babylon’ as they assembled Ikea furniture in their riverside development flats,” The Guardian observed; in the same article, Gray groused at the way White Ladder’s commercial success had led him to be “dismissed as slight.”
To counter that dismissal, the subsequent compilations The EPs 1992-1994 and Lost Songs 95-98 wisely capitalized on Gray’s sudden fame while reminding new fans of his humble origins. The right-sizing of his public persona was made explicit by 2002’s muted and morose A New Day at Midnight, which began with a song called “Dead in the Water.” A New Day at Midnight still sold well, if not quite at White Ladder levels: 4x platinum in the UK instead of 10x, and in America, gold instead of platinum; likewise, the chart success of 2005’s Life in Slow Motion could only be considered disappointing by the standards of White Ladder. Life in Slow Motion was Gray’s last major-label album before Draw the Line brought him full circle four years later, without a label and recording in his own studio (albeit an upgrade from his apartment to a studio once owned by the Eurythmics).
While White Ladder was virtually inescapable in public spaces during the early 2000s, its influence has dissipated in the time since, though it is audible in the crystalline, cosmic folk of Amen Dunes’ 2018 album Freedom. Gray himself suggested that he had paved the way for folk-pop idols like Ed Sheeran and James Blunt. “When I started out, a man with a guitar baring his soul wasn’t in vogue at all. Suddenly, it’s everywhere!” Gray exclaimed in 2011, despite soul-bearing guitar men being the primary vessel for acclaimed rock music for the past 50 years.
Yet he’s not totally wrong. Man or woman, guitar or no guitar, the world will always be full of people who believe that they’re the only ones truly baring their soul, doing so in a way that brings them constant misunderstanding and disappointment at their jobs and relationships, an exception in a world where dishonesty and artifice are the rule and guys like David Gray get dropped from their label. And then an album like White Ladder comes along to sell millions of copies and offer the hope that living the exact same way can be the best revenge.
Buy: Rough Trade
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