Why I Can’t Stop Listening to David Gray

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I bet you’ve heard the song “Babylon” by David Gray. It’s the kind of song that immediately draws you in, and the first time you hear it you know it’ll be around for a long time. “Let go of your heart, let go of your head, and feel it
now,” he sings in the chorus, followed by the word “Babylon,” which fits so perfectly in the groove and the melody that it’s hard to imagine anything else in its place. What a strange word to throw into a song about a broken relationship, right? But wait. Let’s put on our school caps and take a quick look at what’s unfolding in the lyric.

The first verse (Friday night) is about the main character’s regret at the way a relationship has gone, specifically about “jealousy,” “bitterness,” and “ridicule,” while the second verse (Saturday night) is about running away from the girl, and realizing in a crowd of people that he just wants to be with her. The third verse is Sunday morning, and he’s turning around and coming home to find her waiting. Each chorus ends with “Babylon,” which, as you may remember, was the city of the Jews’ exile. The Psalmist, in one of the most painfully beautiful images in the Bible, wrote about how God’s people sat and wept by the rivers of Babylon when they remembered Zion, their true home. Now the word “Babylon” makes sense in a song about exile and return. Brilliant. And brilliant, too, that he doesn’t go out of his way to connect all those dots for the listener. Honestly, until I really stopped and thought about it (and spent some time poking around the web) I didn’t get it. But I didn’t care, because the song is so spot on, musically and lyrically, it didn’t matter to me. I don’t know what David Gray believes, or what he intended with the Babylon reference, but man, that song rings my bells.

Let’s take a minute and listen again, now that we’ve dwelt on the lyric.

In the past few years (thanks to my pal Josh Petersen) I’ve become a huge David Gray fan. His songs are—well, they’re songs. You can hear real growth in his songwriting and production as the albums go by, but I never lose the feeling that these songs are, at their core, the product of a guy sitting at a piano in a lonely room and trying hard to say something of what’s going on in his heart and the world around him. There’s real passion there, the sense that David is compelled to open up his soul and shout, to declare something. Sometimes, especially in the early stuff, there’s a growl to his voice that’s well suited to the dark commentary he’s making on society and the brokenness he seems unable to escape. But once you get to White Ladder, the record that more or less put him on the international map, the songs are more relational, more honest—still directed outward but from a deeper, more tender place. That’s when we get to hear “Babylon.”

I don’t think it’s possible to open up the way he does and not wrestle with ultimate questions about humanity, about God, about the way love hurts and heals us. On the album Life in Slow Motion there’s a song—a painfully sad song—called “Ain’t No Love.” The refrain repeats the phrase “There ain’t no love that’s guiding me,” and in an interview I found online he said,

I’ve never had a religious inclination. This sense that there’s some sort of love that shapes our lives is surely wrong. It’s far deeper forces than that. It’s survival and nurture and instinct, it’s animal and it’s very core. That’s what our existence is and I think that notion just struck a chord with me.

I confess, it’s unsettling to hear him sing this song on the live record, especially with a crowd cheering and singing along. I don’t think there could be a deeper force at work in the world than love—not with all the beauty and kindness at war with the ugliness and hatred that’s both out there and inside of us. But I’m left with a bit of disbelief that he could be the poet that he is, that he could have such a wild imagination and the ability to express things so beautifully and yet remain convinced that there’s no mystery at work in the world, nothing behind the veil to explain something as pure and as moving as music itself. A further irony is that he recorded that album in his studio in England, a studio called the Church, housed in an old stone church building. He even said in another interview that the songs on that record, written quite literally by the light of the stained glass windows overhead, had a “hymn-like quality.”

Then on the same record you get lyrics like this one:

Slowly the truth is loading
I’m weighted down with love
Snow lying deep and even
Strung out and dreaming of

Night falling on the city
Quite something to behold
Don’t it just look so pretty
This disappearing world

We’re threading hope like fire
Down through the desperate blood
Down through the trailing wire
Into the leafless wood

Night falling on the city
Quite something to behold
Don’t it just look so pretty
This disappearing world

He seems to acknowledge that there is such a thing as beauty—beauty strong enough to stop you in your tracks—and truth to weigh you down like snow on a city, love transcendent enough to get you to sit down at a piano and try to find words for it. That’s a religious inclination if ever there was one.

His latest album, Mutineers (a few albums after Life in Slow Motion) is another masterful batch of songs, and the production is courageous, which tells me that he’s working hard, pushing himself artistically and lyrically. And right out of the gate, we hear a bright new hope in “Back in the World.” I don’t know what happened in his life between Life in Slow Motion and Mutineers, but it seems significant that the opening track is a joyous admission that there’s been some turn, a change of heart that has brought him back to life somehow.

Every day when I open my eyes now
It feels like a Saturday
Taking down from the shelf
All the parts of myself
That I packed away
If it’s Love lifts us up from the dark
Is it God by another name?
Who’s to say how it goes?
All I know is
I’m back in the world again

Like the lift of a curse
Got a whole different person
Inside my head
No more trudging around
Stony eyed through the town
Like the living dead
If it’s Love put the joy in my heart
Is it God by another name?
Who’s to say how it goes?
All I know is
I’m back in the world again
Back in the world again

I can’t listen to this song without smiling. And part of my enjoyment comes from the reward of listening to the story that unfolds in the music of an artist willing to bear witness to the great mystery of his own heart. It may not always make sense, especially to him. But our stories are always in flux, progressing from stage to stage, often from anger to regret to forgiveness—like in “Babylon”—from disbelief to wonder, from loss to discovery. When an artist has the privilege of a long career, the listener gets to experience that progression along with him, to see the unfolding of a life into, as C. S. Lewis said, either light or darkness, grace or denial, a hardening of heart of the beautifying of one.

A few weeks back David came to Nashville and played a wonderful set—though a thunderstorm cut it tragically short—while I sat with Josh and my sons and felt, from 100 feet away, the honesty and passion that he poured into his performance. As a singer-songwriter, I was deeply moved to keep working at my craft. I have a long way to go. As a man watching the show with his boys, I couldn’t deny the sense that there is a great love that’s guiding him, and guiding us all.

So, David, in case you happen to read this, thank you for the work you so obviously put into your art, for your willingness to ask questions, for the gift you’ve been given to see that there is, in fact, a tremendous beauty in the world. It’s calling to you. I know, because it’s called to me through you.

Keep listening for it.
————————
I’m not sure if it’ll work or not, but I put together a little David Gray primer of a playlist on iTunes. Click here in case you’re looking for a good place to start.

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


18 Comments

  1. Matt Conner

    So good. Man I love David Gray. Nice exploration, Andrew. (Although I think Draw The Line is his best album front to back)

  2. Josh

    I was first exposed to David’s music on a cassette tape through a friend of mine who was entertaining a foreign exchange student from Ireland.

    First song I heard wasn’t Babylon (which wasn’t a hit in America yet), but the song “Please Forgive Me”.

    Immediately i was drawn in by David’s voice and his aggressive and raw delivery.

    I couldn’t find the cd in stores yet. So I had to special order it under the “Import” section of the local record store. It was like $23. The cost, though higher than I was used to, was totally justified as I pushed real hard into “White Ladder”.

    I have had a chance to see David play every major tour he has ever been on in America, except the summer he toured with Dave Matthews (that would have been amazing).

    Cincinnati, Detroit, Seattle, Nashville……….

    One time I had a day off in Seattle and heard he was playing….so I pulled out a $100 and just showed up outside of the arena and bought as close of a single ticket I could. The music is so good I forgot at times that I was there by myself…..there was so many people who were singing along with me, or talking about the set list with me. It was like family.

    I think I’m up to 8 shows now…..or is it 9? Who is counting. If David’s in town, my schedule will change and accommodate.

    Great article AP………next artist you need to get into is Gregory Alan Isakov!

    Side Note: “though a thunderstorm cut it tragically short”….best line of the entire piece 🙂

  3. Josh

    Matt-David’s best albums front to back by me are:

    1st-White Ladder
    2nd-Life In Slow Motion
    3-New Day at Midnight
    4-Mutineers
    5-Draw The Line
    6-Lost Songs
    7-Sell, Sell, Sell

  4. Martha Wood

    Agreed — love David Gray. You’ve hit the nail on the head and put into words a lot of the things I’ve felt over the years listening to his music. Point of clarification, though: there were about ten years and at least two albums between Life in Slow Motion and Mutineers. Draw the Line and Foundling hint at some of that transition from beauty-filled despair to beauty-filled joy/hope. Thank you for sharing these thoughts! And be kind to yourself — you have less far to go in your craft than you think. 🙂

  5. Rusty Woods

    And now I must save up money to purchase his catalog. I was just asking about him on the Hutchmoot group to find a launching on point in his album history. Well said, look forward to seeing his journey through his words!

  6. Matthew Benefiel

    Andrew, if you have a long way to go then I cannot wait for that final album. Part of what sets your music, and much of what is in the rabbitroom store, apart from what I’ve heard of mainstream music, is the humility of heart to accept the our condition and seek the true Love that heals it. Honestly the love of art that springs like a well from rabbitroom is the icing on the cake. I have plenty of other artist that have great music (Bleachers comes to mind), yet how can any of their lyrics come close to things like: “I stood at the gate with the angel on guard, and wept at the death of his beautiful heart.” (It took me a few listens to get that one, but it hit hard when it did. As you would put it, it makes me ugly cry)

    On a side note I love the reference to Babylon in Switchfoot’s “Where I Belong.” Sometimes it feels like we are on the shores of Babylon when we cannot see the roads made straight, the valleys brought up, and the mountains brought low by our Lord.

  7. Shawn White

    I’ve been such a big fan of David’s for a long time. I recently took a long road trip and had his catalog keep me company for the drive. It was an amazing time just soaking in his music.

    I’m equally glad to see that one of my favorite artists (Andrew Peterson) acknowledge someone like Gray. They both are so extremely special and talented in their own way and I enjoy them both immensely. Andrew, thanks for sharing with us some of what inspires you.

  8. Tyler Hilker

    Now that you’ve spent some quality time with his studio work, check out his Live at Joe’s Pub – January 19, 2001. It’s a wonderful, simple, and clear expression of the spirit of his songs, just him on guitar/piano.

  9. Paul Carman

    I had the great fortune of seeing David Gray at the Fox theatre in Atlanta – not too long after White Ladder, such that the bulk of the tunes were from there. Delving earlier, somgs like “Gathering Dust” pack such an emotional punch, that it’s almost indescribable.

    Lyrics like “i must leave this harbour for the sea…” bring to mind phrases like “disturb us oh lord…”.

    Trying to describe that impact is something i never could do, and generally resorted to – you just have to listen…

    Yet superbly describe, you did! Well done, good sir!

  10. Gareth Davies

    Cheers Andrew,

    I picked David up on White Ladder ( was one of the defining albums of Sixth Form year’s) delved into his back catalogue (Sell Sell Sell, being the standout album in that era) and then got sidetracked (I think by you lot). Will have to undertake some catching up.

  11. Haylie Allcott

    So good. I love when songwriters tie things together and one day you’re listening and the light bulb goes on. And this might sound weird, (it does to me, because I didn’t really grow up as a Sting fan) but Sting’s The Last Ship album totally does that- draws you in, I mean. Just listen to a clip on iTunes- it’s excellent!

  12. Paul Hutchinson

    Thanks for this Andrew.

    I was a big fan of White Ladder, but I stopped listening shortly after that – I was discouraged that his commercial success seemed to be making his writing blander with following albums.

    You’ve encouraged me to listen again. Thanks 🙂

  13. Thomas

    Andrew, the C.S Lewis “thing” you mention at the end of the post, about lifes unfoldning into either more darkness or more light, where can I find Lewis´s exploration on that subject?

  14. Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    @tadrian: Sorry I missed your question the first time! Here’s the first quote that came to mind, from Lewis’s The Weight of Glory: It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

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