Is David Gray music’s most aptly named man? Possibly (despite stiff competition from Fat Joe). His piano-based pop is as tasteful as a charcoal Brooks Brothers suit — and just as exciting. It’s tactful and bland, comfortable and anonymous. It’s safe. Familiar. Gray.
But with A New Day at Midnight — the follow-up to 2000’s overrated blockbuster ”White Ladder” — the decorous veneer has given way to something deeper-hued. You can hear it immediately on opener ”Dead in the Water”; there’s more passion in Gray’s delivery, a vocal soulfulness his muted tunes have previously only hinted at. Gray’s got the blues for real this time: Loss is ”Midnight”’s major theme, with much of the CD written after Gray’s father’s death (from cancer) last year. ”All my sorrow, all my rage/A tear that falls on every page,” he intones on the doleful title track. With the stark ”December,” he wills himself to believe that ”all my tears will dry away.” By ”Last Boat to America,” he’s ”got no more tears to cry.” But the album isn’t entirely Gray’s anatomy of pain. The love song ”Be Mine” — with a chorus that recalls, oddly enough, ”Drift Away,” by that other eminent Gray, Dobie — sounds giddy by comparison. And while ”Caroline” and ”Kangaroo” hardly rival ”Good Vibrations,” their pining-for-a-girl normalcy is a relief after all the weeping.
”Midnight”’s only drawback is its rinky-dink production, which, while less distracting than on ”White Ladder,” is woefully inappropriate for such delicate, heartfelt music. Coproduced by Gray, the CD sounds like an elaborate home demo, full of tinny drums and clunky electronics. A real back-up band captured in a decent studio by a sympathetic producer (Jon Brion?) would have added texture and — here’s an idea — color.
”Midnight” is frustrating, a truly moving work that’s diminished by bad decisions. It has the makings of an enduring treasure and of an admirable failure, but it won’t fit neatly into either black-and-white extreme. It falls, in other words, into a gray area.