David Gray’s Skellig; Enchantingly Sublime

Music technology bears a burden on the acoustic singer-songwriter, hopefully awaiting a practical gap in the market to sneak into the mainstream. Locked in the adolescent tantrum of the drum machine, pop charts of the late eighties were awash with electronica, hip hop, and the dawn of house, either this, or jean commercials revitalised sixties soul classics. Then, along came a short dreadlocked female singer, clasping her guitar.

Had Tracey Chapman arrived a decade earlier when Joan Armatrading was prevalent, the impact might not have had the same clout. As it was her appearance was exhilarating, a breath of fresh air, but seems sometimes acoustic artists are to pop charts as Christopher Lambert is to Highlander, there can be only one.

In 1998 David Gray’s self-released studio album, White Ladder looked as if it would be no more successful than his previous three. While renowned on the folk scene, Gray didn’t break the mainstream until its ATO re-issue in 2000. Perhaps we could speculate the charts of 98 was held hostage by Britpop, else the reign of rave was at its apex. People looked for something fresh for the millennium, and Gray’s folktronica found that gap.

Folktronica is a strapline, rather than subgenre. A causal grouping for fusing string instruments into electronic music, born at a time of public acceptance in hip hop. It was courageous, but a natural progression, and Gray was atop of the game, appearing in David Kane’s rom-com This Year’s Love, which he based a song around its title.

Like an Andy Warhol prediction, the sequel to White Ladder, A New Day at Midnight, failed to obtain the same critical acclaim, despite charting at the top, and whipping Pop Idol runner-up Gareth Gates’s debut album, which is enough for me! Exhaustion in the spotlight saw David Gray rest, and gradually fall into cult status, returning to the folk circuit.

At the millennium I was neither here nor there about David Gray. Yeah, I liked his charted songs, but entangled in denying rave had perished I sought heavier trip hop, or else a model folk formula; the two were strictly separate entities. It wasn’t until a near decade ago, reviewing a self-published book which suggested White Ladder was a revelation of pious significance, that I gave second thought to David Gray, and just how good the album was. Mind you, the flimsy autobiographical plot continued onto how, under hypnosis, the author turned out to be an incarnation of Cleopatra, so it all had to be taken with a pinch!

This is the culprit, the reason I’ve been knocked for six by his new album, Skellig, released tomorrow (19th Feb 2021.) Naturally I expected it to be pretty awesome, but hadn’t fathomed how awesome. Astounded, on continuous play and taking me on a journey for the best part of this week, I confirm its ambient, acoustic gorgeousness.

If last year’s twentieth anniversary of White Ladder saw a deluxe edition launched, but a subsequent tour cancelled due to the pandemic, Skellig counteracts; it is simply perfection for isolation, though written prior. The elements of folktronica are even more subtle than previously, with just a hint they set the scene, welcoming a sparser, shared soundscape with the atmospheric songs focussing around six-part vocals with Gray trading his signature gravel for a softer tone; mega-bliss. Though, a sense of shingle develops vocally as the album reaches a conclusion, not at Dylan level, but adjacent.

Skellig takes its name from a formation of precipitous rocky islands off the coast of Co. Kerry, the most westerly point in Ireland. Ravaged by the Atlantic, the seemingly un-inhabitable location of Skellig Michael became an unlikely site of pilgrimage in 600AD for a group of monks, who believed leading such a merciful existence, they would leave the distraction of the human realm to be ultimately closer to God.

Gray asks for no literal translation of the above, nor prescribes any religious allegiance; the story, told to him by a friend, has haunted his imagination ever since: “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. How close to God could you possibly wish to get? Life must have been unbelievably hard for them and trying to fathom the deep spiritual conviction that compelled them to escape the mediaeval world led me to acknowledge my own deepest longings to be free of all the endless human noise that we now so readily accept as being such an inescapable part of our day to day lives. Dreams of revelation, dreams of a cleansing purity, dreams of escape. Ideas that I think almost any 21st century person shouldn’t find it too hard to relate to!”

A notion which saw Gray gather his team and venture to the Scottish Highlands to live out the creation of the record. In the significant of this backstory, Skellig paints a picture with sound akin to Gogh’s Starry Starry Night. You can sense the sea crashing into the rocks of a barren Irish landmass, hear the haunting echo through the draughty halls of a desolate monastery, through multi-layered vocals, delicate Celtic guitar picks and morose piano solos.    

Written astutely and with maturity in comparison to White Ladder, subjects twist dejection into uplifting awe. Carried by a singular baritone guitar, the opening title track bobs on an ocean like a chantey, familiarising you with how it’s going to go down. From there on it free-flows thirteen tracks of blissful enchantment. While listening I noted the songs seemed short, but in checking most weigh over the four-minute mark, proof how engrossing Skellig is. Lost in its splendour it comes to a masterful finale with the graceful, All That We Asked For And More; which sums up the album perfectly. A ten from me!

Image credit: Derrick Santini

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