Bouncing back from the hushed austerity of 2010's Foundling -- a tasteful affair, to be sure, but perhaps a shade too tasteful -- David Gray joins forces with Andy Barlow, a producer/songwriter/remixer who has worked with Elbow and Damien Rice but is best known as one of the founding members of Lamb, the British electronica band of the '90s. This hardly signals an excursion into electronic music for the folkie, but Barlow does paint Mutineers with many appealingly muted colors, an approach that seems surprisingly bright after the off-white Foundling. At its best, the production is so quietly textured it never draws attention to itself; instead, it enhances the songs themselves, letting them breathe and settle.
Optimism is the overriding theme of David Gray's 10th album, and when he's not insisting, rather manically, that he's "back in the world", he's urging you to "kick off your shoes". Though you can often detect a furrowed brow or fraught phrase, this is the sound of a man gently recuperating from a decade of being defined by his multimillion-selling 1998 album, White Ladder, and that infamous wobbly head. His voice – still carrying that distinctive, baa-like tremor – is now backed by purring cellos and murmuring double bass; Beautiful Agony's recollection of a sun-scorched evening isn't far from Ryan Adams.
David GrayMutineers(IHT/Kobalt/+180 Records)3 out of 5 stars Over 20 years after releasing his debut album, David Gray returns with his tenth album. Matching his longest period between studio albums at four years, he’s had ample time to collect his thoughts, observe life, and translate them into a tapestry of songs both reflective and anthemic. Spread across 11 tracks, Gray covers familiar ground for long-time listeners, which can be both comforting and maddening.
On the surface, this collaboration with Andy Barlow (of underrated Nineties trip-hop duo Lamb) isn't a huge leap for David Gray, a folk-rock vet obsessed with electronics at least since 2000's sleeper hit White Ladder. But Barlow, a DJ-minded producer obsessed with acoustic instruments, is a perfect match. Where Gray generally plants his Van Morrison-ish bray like a flag in a song's center, Barlow blurs the field with swarming arrangements and vocals smeared by effects and multitracking.
Life goes on, people come and go, the world keeps turning, but there will always, eventually, be a new David Gray album. The singer-songwriter seemed to have fallen off the radar somewhat in recent times – indeed, Mutineers is his first album since the disappointingly dour Foundlings was released almost four years ago. So, Mutineers comes complete with quotes about being pushed out of a comfort zone, about finding new ways to record, about a new change in direction for Gray.
A newly confident David Gray emerges on this soulful album, his best since his “White Ladder” breakthrough 15 years ago. Gray has been through some dark ravines in his career, but he enjoys a rebirth of happiness here. “When I open my eyes now it feels like a Saturday,” he sings on the briskly upbeat first track, “Back in the World,” which continues, “Love put a joy in my heart.” That joy suffuses his music, as the sometimes cerebral Gray gets quite erotic in “Snow in Vegas” and the title cut.