For most people, David Gray is the guy who did that White Ladders album. The guy who was briefly (and possibly inexplicably) famous. A folkie who flirted with ambient electronica. It’s possible to listen to ‘Back in the World’, the first track on Mutineers (his eleventh album), and imagine it’s a comeback. It comes at you with that sense of renewed intent.
There is an insistent quality to the mix of guitar, piano and drums, a buzzing undercurrent like a snare drum fed through an amp. No more trudging about like the living dead, he tells us. He’s back in the world and it’s the only way to be. ‘As the Crow Flies’ temporarily wrongfoots you: a bit of a lumpen piano plodder to begin with, a Cure-ish guitar line and some restless drums elevate proceedings. You start to wonder, as you listen, if you’re hearing someone working hard to get out of a comfort zone.
By the time you’ve listened to ‘Mutineers’ and ‘Beautiful Agony’, you start to sniff that there’s an interesting collaborator behind the scenes and with the minimum of investigation you find out that the album has been produced by Andy Barlow, formerly of Lamb, and it’s like the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Whether Barlow is pushing Gray or whether Gray is just keen to do something different doesn’t matter; the fact that Mutineers is surprising, spikey, more optimistic than you’d expect from Gray, full of songs that you hear and think, I could go back to that, I could listen again – that’s what matters. Undoubtedly Barlow’s contribution is important – listen to the crystalline ice picks inserted at the beginning of ‘Last Summer’, the Spector-ish wall of sound at the climax of ‘Birds of the High Arctic’ – but Gray is working hard too.
There are at least a half dozen songs here that bolt out of the starting gates with convincing vigour. Obviously there are people who won’t ever forgive Gray for White Ladders, who will forever lump in with the likes of Coldplay. But he’s better than that and Mutineers provides a lot of ammunition to defend him with.