The popularity of David Gray’s White Ladder nine or so years ago was a fluke, an accident, a total surprise, never should have happened. The man had been plugging away for seven years at that point, making little leeway in the wider pop consciousness, when something clicked—was it that blend of acoustic instruments and electronic flourishes? Or that reedy voice with the blasting upper register? Or maybe those songs that mined personal depths to find universal truths?
It was quite possibly all of the above, and in spite of the unlikelihood of the bobblehead troubadour as pop hero, he followed up Ladder with two more equally fine records before coming to the inevitable career crossroads—he fired his band, hired a new one, started a family, recharged, and found a new creative energy in all this change.
The first results of this renewal are the 11 songs on Draw the Line, perhaps Gray’s finest work yet. Largely eschewing the electronic counterpoints to his music’s acoustic foundations, Gray for the first time leans on and allows himself to be propelled by a band, to appreciable effect in all aspects of the record.
The change is evident from the first bars of “Fugitive.” Drummer Keith Pryor makes the martial tempo sound unexpectedly loose, and Gray follows through with a loping piano figure and a lyric that extols one to live for the moment (“Hey better realize my friend / Lord in the end now you can’t take it with / Gotta live”). His way with a melody is undiminished, livening even the darkest corners of the album’s title track, which ticks off a list of social and personal ills against which we must defend ourselves (All this talk can hypnotize you and / We can ill afford / To give ourselves to sentiment / When our time is oh so short / … Have to draw the line”).
The awesome Jolie Holland lends a ghostly harmony vocal on “Kathleen,” which perfectly portrays the spectral scene of a man wandering, lost, with a bygone lover on his mind. Gray turns up the quietude again on “Transformation,” comparing the renewal of one’s spirit in the embrace of a lover to the renewal of nature at the turning of seasons.
The natural themes also appear in the cadenced wordplay of “Jackdaw,” where Gray punctuates his verses with a jaunty string arrangement. No outside influences are necessary on “Stella the Artist”—the band kicks up the tempo, putting some needed rock bite into the song, and Gray responds with a throaty, committed vocal. The vocals are the star of “Full Steam,” the wrenching ballad that closes the record, as Gray trades lines with Annie Lennox and perfectly evokes the isolation in the lines “Always so little far too late / It’s 3am I’m wide awake / There’s still one call to make.”
Draw the Line is unmistakably David Gray—his voice is distinctive, his melodic framework instantly recognizable. What sets the record apart is the richness of its sound, how it comes across as simultaneously large and subtle, embracing and transcending those extremes. It is a resonant listening experience, and a rewarding one at that.