What is Middlebrow? David Gray’s White Ladder 20 Years On


Image: David Gray, White Ladder (ATO Records, 2000)

In the autumn of 1998, struggling 30 year-old singer-songwriter David Gray, recently dumped by label EMI, bunkered down in his London apartment to make a last-ditch album with friend and drummer Craig “Clune” McClune. The recording process, which took place in Gray’s bedroom studio, was intimate and a little haphazard. Years later, Gray would recall his cat jumping on an old AKAI sampler, putting it temporarily out of commission.

The album that emerged, titled White Ladder, eventually became one of the best-selling releases of the early oughts. It comprised a series of acoustic-guitar-led compositions featuring Gray’s throaty voice; romantic, lightly mystical lyrics and rousing choruses. The songs on White Ladder were both emotionally honest and structurally sound, if somewhat less than original and occasionally cloying. The most overt artistic inspiration was the ethereal vibe of Astral Weeks/Veedon Fleece-era Van Morrison. Gray even went so far as to weave (with attribution) melodies and vocal lines from the Morrison standards ‘Into the Mystic’ and ‘Madame George’ into the album’s nine-minute closer, an overblown cover of Soft Cell’s ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’.

In addition to its confident song-craft, White Ladder was notable for a subtly contemporary sonic palette. Gray’s mellow strumming and gravelly voice mixed seamlessly with electronic samples and skittering keyboard beats, in a tastefully restrained nod to both the ecstasy-fuelled British rave scene of the 1990s and more downbeat electronica creeping onto the edges of modern pop. White Ladder sounded like the kind of soulful, soothing album ravers might keep in their CD changers for Sunday morning comedowns or that suburban dinner party hosts could put on as an unobtrusive soundtrack.

When Gray originally released White Ladder on his own IHT Records in November 1998, such ubiquity was some time in the future. Despite being embraced early in Ireland, where it spent six weeks at number one, White Ladder failed to chart in the UK. Nonetheless, Gray’s momentum built over the next two years. A gig supporting Robbie Williams on tour boosted his profile, as did a remix of White Ladder’s ‘Please Forgive Me’ by house DJ Paul Hartnol that became an Ibiza staple. The tide really began turning, however, due to the attention of an influential fan—Dave Matthews, leader of the eponymous American jam-rock band renowned for being both massively popular and held in universal critical contempt. Mathews decided that a re-issued White Ladder would be the first release on his brand new independent label ATO.

Upon its second release in May 2000, the album debuted at no. 69 on the UK album chart, climbing steadily as a result of word-of-mouth, consistent touring and the strong performance of a string of singles, particularly a reworked version of opening track ‘Babylon’, a UK number five hit. White Ladder finally reached the top spot 15 months later, in August 2001. It would go on to spend 123 weeks in the top 40, selling over three million units in the UK alone. White Ladder proved even more buoyant in Ireland, becoming the best-selling album in the nation’s history, with an estimated one third of the households owning a copy.

No sooner was Gray finally tasting long-elusive mainstream success—his CD’s flying out of stores faster that they could be shipped, sold-out shows from Melbourne to Madrid—than a nasty backlash against him began fomenting. The principal charge, which held the ring of truth, was that he was boring.  Gray’s square looks—simultaneously boyish and daddish—and lack of a particularly strong style or personality outside of his music didn’t help in this regard. Nor did the way he waggled his head from side to side while performing, closing his eyes while crooning earnestly.

As alluded to earlier, the second and perhaps terminal, knock to Gray’s reputation as a ‘serious’ artist was a growing association of White Ladder with the aspirational middle-class. It is a byproduct of an eroded but enduring class system that there is almost no surer death knell of cultural cachet than achieving widespread popularity among Britain’s economically stable and voraciously consuming societal middle-strata of white-collar workers and their families. Commercial artists depend heavily on the pounds of these people, yet risk losing credibility if their work is seen as tailored to the tastes of middle Britain. Numerous television shows and movies have skewered the putative conformity, status signalling and quiet desperation of this silent majority, most memorably Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s contemporary hit The Office. If David Brent had cited his favourite current album, it might well have been White Ladder.

Through no fault of his own, Gray was transitioning in the public mind from a talented outsider to the middle-brow balladeer whom Rolling Stone derided as “a darling of the Chardonnay-and-chinos set”. If this all seems petty and unfair, it was. I’d hope that as a skilled and hitherto under-rewarded songwriter, the pleasures of having millions of new fans, financial security and unprecedented freedom, drowned out the naysayers in Gray’s mind, though he is reported to have struggled with both his unexpected success and critical responses to it.

While not kind or flattering , backlash in the culture industry is a phenomenon worth taking a close look at for what it can reveal about the societies in which in takes place, in particular the fragility of public taste and its links to identity formation. These issues are too many and complex for me to unpick here, but for those interested I would recommend Canadian music writer Carl Wilson’s excellent book Let’s Talk about Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste, which tackles the meaning of musical identification through the lens of responses to his compatriot Celine Dion. And have another listen to White Ladder. Nearly 20 years on, the backlash largely forgotten, it remains a solid, rewarding album that sounds surprisingly fresh.

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