When I hear the words “Here I stand, six feet small,” or “I’ve fallen out of love,” I don’t think, “Wow, how clever!” — I cringe. And not an I-just-found-a-cockroach-in-my-room cringe — a deep, gut wrenching I-just-had-to-chew-and-swallow-a-pound-of-live-cockroaches cringe. So I must admit that even before listening to the album, my initial hopes were a bit dashed after reading the title of David Gray’s new effort, A New Day at Midnight. (Deep, David, really deep.)
This being said, the good news for Gray is that my opinion could only improve. Unfortunately, it didn’t. The music parallels the album’s title. Certain songs are catchy because they play like anthems and are very similar to his hits from White Ladder, the industry miracle that walled Gray’s trophy room with platinum albums two years ago.
The first track of the album is actually one of the better ones. “Dead in the Water” grows as it progresses; the contrast between its energetic instrumentation and pessimistic lyrics creates an interesting ambivalence. But the rest of the album is bogged down. Songs are repetitive and, frankly, boring. Each song has a little gimmick that makes it different, but the presence of a toy keyboard playing a bridge solo, or a trumpet the intro, is not enough to affect the songs. If anything, the transparency of these variations only emboldens the fact that most of the songs sound the same.
The first five seconds of “Freedom,” for example, are inhabited only by funeral horns. It sounds great, but quickly gives way to regular old David Gray. Four minutes into the song, Gray starts belting out passionately, but by then he’s already sapped our energy with excessive drudge.
A new instrument works well in “Caroline.” Here, the ballad reminiscent of country music uses a steel guitar for most of its length. It adds a great sonic depth to the piece and meshes well with the rest of the song.
But Gray doesn’t completely fail. “Kangaroo” has an incredibly catchy hook, and its bass line is just as sweet. I choose to ignore that each time the song begins, I am convinced he’ll start singing, “Sail Away with me honey–” and that I’ve definitely heard that sweet bass line somewhere else — I just can’t pinpoint it. “Real Love” seems pretty standard fare for Gray, but the chorus is energized, and his lyrics are successfully introspective. Maybe it is just in contrast to the nondescript songs surrounding it, but the song is actually uplifting.
The best song on the album is without a doubt “Be Mine.” At the start, we are still sleeping, and it doesn’t indicate any desire to wake us up — same old stuff. But the chorus comes early (thank God) and it’s catchy enough to bolster the whole song — one of its lyrics, “Jumping Jesus, Holy Cow–” seems absurd and sophomoric but really grabs our attention. The chorus makes us focus on the verses, which aren’t anything great, but are nevertheless thoughtful. And the verses don’t last long either. For once, Gray knows he’s got something with his chorus, so he just keeps on giving it to us — and there’s nothing wrong with that. Back-up singers repeat a part of the chorus as it fades out before we grow sick of it.
When I think about it, Gray’s last album had some good songs on it, but it was popular only because he became that guy who no one had ever heard of and was really hip to listen to. Even those good songs were really repetitive and unambitious. After listening to them a hundred times in a month, no one wants to hear them for a while. A New Day at Midnight has a few of those songs, and then a much larger number of songs that no one ever wants to hear for a while. Don’t worry, Mr. Gray, you aren’t Dead in the Water — you’re just Face Down in the Water, Dying.