White Ladder (20th Anniversary Edition)
White Ladder was actually released in 1998. But no one gave a fuck. No one gave a shit about David Gray. He’d been stagnating, releasing middling-af albums across the middling-af 1990s; his pained bleat, his lack of interest in a melody, or in anything especially necessary to say, his rudimentary guitar skills, perfunctory arrangements…a recipe for failing upwards.
Two years later White Ladder was re-released. Why? Well, as usual when it comes time to blame someone for bringing musical mediocrity to the masses, we have Dave Matthews to thank. Gray had been schlepping about as an opening act for Radiohead and the bloody Dave Matthews B(l)and among others. And Matthews decided to give his music the one thing it never deserved: A fighting chance.
Next thing it went over with Gen X-ers and Boomers and it was in shops and movies and on those awful “chillout” compilations that had titles like Acoustic Bliss and Lame-Fuck Paddling Douche-Canoe Guitar. You know the ones.
I was working in a CD store – imaginatively titled The CD Store – when the Grayness took over. Beige music for beige people. Suits piling in to kill a lunch hour and we’d play White Ladder on a loop for two hours.
It kicks off with the Fisher-Price My First Keyboard With Drum Machine Presets rhythm that somehow lifted Please Forgive Me out of the bedsit and into the big time. And from there things can only get drearier. Babylon has a curious wee guitar lick stolen from any James Taylor song-intro and married to a sample-library offcut of tinkering, distracting percussion. It is the ‘hit’ of the album. It stands up today as the best thing happening here. And that’s not meant as any sort of compliment.
The mid-album slump of whining-hard kicks in with My Oh My, We’re Not Right and Nightblindiness. Silver Lining is no such thing. Just more inward mope. And then White Ladder’s title track brings with it memories of something akin to shock-therapy. There in the store having served nincompoops hungry for the Nature’s Best compilation and doing my best to tune out David Gray. And the relentlessness of this dirge-in-search-of-a-tune would remind me that whilst it was all the same day I was probably still alive at least. Me trudging back and forth to summon enough enthusiasm that the next person wanting a BB King and Eric Clapton duet album might just be tempted to try something by Alberts Collins or King, or even some fucking Son Seals would do. And David Gray’s sonorous nonsense somehow proof I still had a heartbeat.
To make it worse, our boss was so proud of the number of copies of White Ladder that choogled through that store. Fuck. He even had a certificate from the record company. We sold 2000 copies of that fucking record. Ask him who sold them, though. There was no me or we in his team. Only I. He sold the bloody lot of them mate. The absolute fucking lot. Get to fuck!
Maudlin, dreary, hopeless. And that’s not just most of my days punching down on daft customers in a store. That’s the soundtrack too. Fucking David Gray. Fucking White Ladder.
Was there ever a better metaphor for being just hopeless enough but always white enough to fail on until you climbed the bloody charts without changing your tune, or checking to see if you were even ever in tune?
I went to a David Gray concert. For my sins. When I wasn’t selling shit music that didn’t need to be sold to people that would only listen to it once, I was out hacking up a few column inches around every single international act that visited. Go to the gig. Leave before the encore. Write the review. See it in the local rag the next day for a short black hit of pride.
David Gray arrived when White Ladder was at its peak. And the concert gave me gout.
White Ladder is now celebrating its 20th Anniversary (though technically it’s 22, but shhh, no matter!)
And David Gray is on tour, still, always. Now he’s promising White Ladder in its entirety. And a selection of Greatest Hits to follow. Does that mean he’s playing the fucking album twice? That’s gout in both feet then!
Listening to White Ladder now is like walking through the grounds of your old high school. You can remember being there but it means nothing. Nothing at all. And if you think too hard in the hope of finding a nostalgic hue, there’s only sadness, maybe even something a little bitter.
Fittingly the CD Store where I worked when this was (re) released is now a shoe shop. We were basically selling shoes at the time. For all the boss cared. Two thousand pairs of pumps. And a plaque on the wall.
The double-disc version of the expanded Anniversary Edition of White Ladder, now “20” features a second set of songs. The ones that weren’t fucking good enough the first time!
Imagine how shit they are. And double it.
There’s a demo version of This Year’s Love that shows he’s a better guitarist than pianist. Just.
And then we bookend with Please Forgive Me in its demo shape. And no, David. I never can forgive you. You made accountants seem hip, you gave far too much hope to far too many party-guitarists, you are like the stop/go sign-holder down the road from Leonard’s Tower of Song. Stopping traffic. Holding things up. Bored and lonely. Detached and yet desperate.
How White Ladder ever triumphed, ever meant anything to anyone is fucking beyond me.
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