There's really no polite way to say this: David Gray is dull. And, from the sound of things, getting duller. That's not to say that his new disc, "Life in Slow Motion," isn't a vast improvement over his last one, the depressive "A New Day at Midnight" (it is), or that it's not pretty terrific (it is, in places).
But having proved himself capable of making smart, seductive pop records with his 2000 breakthrough, "White Ladder," which these days is looking more and more like a fluke, Gray's output since has been the aural equivalent of a Merchant-Ivory film. "Ladder" was a modestly novel-for-its-time bedroom-tape hit that featured adult contemporary rock, samples and light drum-and-bass-style beats smelted into something that can only be catalogued as rarefied semi-dance-folk. Its follow-up, 2002's glum, glacially paced "New Day at Midnight," replaced most of the beats with ballads and understated strings.
"Life" dials up the orchestral numbers and throws in the occasional mid-tempo pop-like song, but it's lively only by comparison. It's commendably, carefully made, featuring gorgeous piano ballads that swell into full-blown pop songs, complete with singalong choruses, cellos and heavily percussive backbeats. It's a more ambitious and bigger sounding record than Gray has ever made, but it never quite soars the way it should. "White Ladder" proved Gray's ability to marry affecting lyrics to catchy (if admittedly rudimentary) beats, but "Life" offers not enough of either. It's abstract and wobbly where its predecessors were personal and precise. Gray strives for mystery here but occasionally just sounds odd ("I'm smoking / Killing the time / How long's a piece of twine?").
Gray has compared "The One I Love," one of the disc's best songs and probably the only one that could qualify as jaunty, to Bruce Springsteen, and on its face, the comparison isn't unreasonable: Sung from the perspective of a man bleeding to death, it's a roundabout alt-country number that references bullets and repo men and doomed couples slow-dancing, but Springsteen would never have been so extravagantly tasteful, even in his "Tom Joad" phase.
There are several other great moments: "Ain't No Love" kicks up a small amount of dust courtesy of lovely string passages; "Alibi" evokes the best tracks on "White Ladder," probably on purpose, and "Lately" is the best of the disc's many slow-build-to-a-crashing-middle numbers. Producer Marius de Vries (who helmed Rufus Wainwright's similarly filigreed "Want Two" and has also worked with Bjork, an artist as temperamentally and sonically different from Gray as it's possible to get and still remain on the same planet) treats every track with the solemnity it deserves, which is part of the problem.
Refined to the point of airlessness, "Life" is reverent enough to make one long for the comparative vulgarity of a Clay Aiken album. But Gray remains an utterly likable -- if ultimately frustrating -- artist, and anyone making intelligent pop records these days is worth rooting for. Even if they don't always get it right.