It’s been just over twenty years since David Gray became a household name with the ubiquitous, multi-platinum selling White Ladder, which still remains the biggest selling album of all time in Ireland. Despite Grammys, BRITs and MTV Awards, he is an artist who has never simply tried to replicate that formula but has always explored new sounds and new directions.
Skellig, his twelfth studio album eschews the mellow electronica he embraced on his 2019 album Gold in a Brass Age for a more organic, atmospheric sound. For a musician who was embraced in Ireland long before the rest of the world took notice, Skellig sees Gray return to this fertile ground, collaborating with a host of Irish artists including Mossy Nolan of The Silken Same, bassist Robbie Malone, cellist Caroline Dale, David Kitt, and Sligo singer Niamh Farrell.
Gray has said that the story of how the Skellig islands became a pilgrimage site for monks in 600AD has haunted his imagination for years. “The more I contemplated the idea of a small group of people landing on those rocks and establishing a monastic life there, the more overpowered I became by a dizzying sense of awe.”
The choice of inspiration is apt as an almost hymn-like spirituality pervades the album which was recorded pre-pandemic in Edwyn Collins’ Helmsdale studio in Scotland. The album features a sparser soundscape than Gray’s previous work and centres on an atmospheric layering of six-part vocals and a softening of vocal tone from the man himself.
This new sound has created an album that feels like a perfect fit for our current situation. Working again with producer Ben de Vries, Gray has created an introspective and thoughtful album with a communal, organic vibe.
Opening track Skellig is a piece of dream-like devotion, featuring lush, layered voices and subtle piano which sets the tone for the rest of the album. It features a softer, more vulnerable vocal from Gray which he also uses to great effect on the swooping Spiral Arms with its hints of Astral Weeks-era Van Morrison and the atmospheric Dun Laoghaire (which he craftily makes rhyme with ‘beery’). On the chorale of No False Gods, soft-pedal piano provides the backdrop for a falsetto vocal, backed ably by the warmth of a lulling cello.
The anthemic Heart and Soul and the glistening Deep Water Swim are reminders of Gray’s ability to write an almost perfect pop song, while the beautiful Can’t Hurt More Than This has echoes of This Year’s Love, but with more contemplative depth thanks to the warmth of the arrangement and Gray’s husky vocal.
There are dark undercurrents on the album too, despite the delicacy. Accumulates with its traditional Irish feel hints at the bruised anger that so marked Gray’s earliest albums. House With No Walls is the most pared back track, keeping the vocal front and centre in a way that recalls Leonard Cohen while The White Owl builds subtly thanks to melancholic piano chords to create one of the most interesting songs on the album.
Even on his biggest hits, Gray’s songs have never slipped into mawkishness. On Skellig, the lyrics are powerful and emotive, wrapped in lovely melodies, but they are sufficiently opaque as to leave space for emotional interpretation.
David Gray has proved that his trademark subtle narratives of the human heart still captivate and on Skellig he fashions a compelling and authentic collection of songs that ranks among one of the more intriguing records he has released over the last twenty years.
1. Skellig 05:01
2. Dun Laoghaire 04:32
3. Accumulates 04:58
4. Heart And Soul 04:20
5. Laughing Gas 03:21
6. No False Gods 02:09
7. Deep Water Swim 04:08
8. Spiral Arms 06:55
9. The White Owl 03:49
10. Dares My Heart Be Free 06:06
11. House With No Walls 03:43
12. Can t Hurt More Than This 04:33
13. All That We Asked For 02:38