Romanticism is characterized by a desire for transcendence of the everyday; unity with God, a Higher Power, Nature, or Life; and harmony with the idealized lover or soulmate. As these cravings are ultimately unfulfillable, at least in any permanent sense, Romantic works of literature, art, and music exude palpable melancholy and attunement to “what’s missing.” In this way, human existence is portrayed as inevitably incomplete and relationship with “the beloved” as necessarily doomed.
Over the course of 25 years, starting with his 1993 debut A Century Ends, David Gray has forged his own brand of popular Romanticism: wistful melodies, unmistakable voice brimming with precarious idealism, and lyrics that conjure loss and longing. His new album, Gold in a Brass Age, is a continuation of this trajectory. The project opens with “The Sapling,” highlighting Gray’s voice and the talents of his band, particularly Stephanie Oyerinde and Sherina White, whose supporting vocals elevate the track much as Sharon Robinson’s and Anjani Thomas’ vocals consistently vivified Leonard Cohen’s work.
The title song makes use of a recurrent synth line, striking a balance between layering and spaciousness, catharsis and restraint. On “Furthering,” Gray sings: “Just keep pouring I’ll say when / Walk me further in / Lose the weight that’s in these bones,” yearning to be delivered from the corporeal world, burdens removed: the archetypal ache for freedom. The sonic palimpsest on “A Tight Ship,” including strings, piano, and synth-y accents, is striking, each instrumental part contributing to a cohesive whole while remaining tonally distinct.
“Can’t see no wood for the trees / Can’t tell the land from the sky,” Gray sings on “Watching the Waves,” his voice rising from an austere musical backdrop. “I gave it all I could give,” he adds, “I took that ghost for my bride / Went day by day trying to live / With my heart on the outside.” He sidesteps the swirl-and-churn that would land him in dream-pop territory, instead navigating a notable staticity, a rhythmic and non-reverby sound; in photographic terms, a zoom in rather than out. “Just how can I get so tired of me?” Gray asks on “Hurricane Season,” Robbie Malone’s supple bass carrying the song, musical buoyancy contrasted with Gray’s whispery voice. Clarinet and sax parts by Michael Smith and Thomas Richards, coupled with the insertion of operatic voices randomly rising and sinking in the mix, broaden the project’s range. The album closes with “If 8 Were 9,” and the listener is left with Gray’s contagious sense of life as exquisitely flawed — suffering textured by epiphanic highs and the fleetingly redemptive nature of love.
Gray is often associated with his most commercially successful set, 1998’s White Ladder. Many of his other projects, however, deserve greater attention, including 2002’s A New Day at Midnight; his last two releases, 2010’s Foundling and 2014’s Mutineers; and, now, Gold in a Brass Age, all of which are revealingly nuanced and well-crafted articulations, even if the sequences as a whole are less pop-driven. Gray’s oeuvre reflects a signature style, the singer-songwriter never straying far from Romantic tropes — at the same time, avoiding obvious repetition by continuing to broaden his musical purview.