White Ladder proved a massive commercial and critical success for both Gray and ATO.
David Gray’s fourth album, White Ladder, proved not only to be his breakthrough but his crowning achievement. A perfect encapsulation of everything he had been working towards on his previous releases (and would look to recapture with all subsequent releases), it’s immediately accessible, familiar in that timeless quality afforded only a handful of albums in an era and full of simply great pop songs. Originally released in 1998 on his own IHT imprint after nearly a decade bouncing around the music industry and releasing music on other labels, it was picked up by ATO and re-released in May of 2000. White Ladder would eventually go on to massive success as it gradually picked up steam and ultimately reached number one in the UK (though only 35 in the US). It went on to spend more than 175 weeks on the charts, one of the longest such runs in UK history. Hell, it’s the 28th best-selling album of all time in the UK.
But in late 1998 it didn’t seem destined for anywhere beyond Ireland, where it went to number one and sold over 100,000 copies. All that would change drastically when the album was re-released as one of the first titles on Dave Matthews’ then-new ATO imprint. White Ladder proved a massive commercial and critical success for both Gray and ATO, eventually earning a Best New Artist nomination in 2002.
It was a misleading category. This “new artist” had been working for nearly a decade as a singer-songwriter, having released a handful of albums on nearly as many labels, none of which brought him a wider audience. With the Matthews/ATO-boost, White Ladder proved to be the right album at the right time, albeit several years after its initial appearance (which technically makes this a 22nd anniversary reissue, though the album didn’t exist in the public consciousness until 2000). A then-novel pairing of acoustic guitar and subtle electronics also helped White Ladder feel like something wholly new and different, it’s massive single “Babylon” offering a perfect encapsulation of late-‘90s electronic music and the endless potential afforded by the new millennium.
Nearly half of the album’s tracks would eventually be released as singles. “Babylon,” originally released in July 1999, was re-released in June 2000 and became ubiquitous for several months. And with good reason. The low-key instrumentation and Gray’s soulful delivery were hard to resist, a formula that would prove equally successful on the album’s next single. “Please Forgive Me” sounds like the natural extension of everything “Babylon” set up and was thus instantly recognizable as the work of the same artist. “This Year’s Love,” “Sail Away” and “Say Hello Wave Goodbye,” each released over the course of the following year, further established the David Gray sound, helping to solidify it within the public consciousness. It’s this sound – gentle acoustic guitars, subtle electronics and Gray’s mournful, almost resigned-sounding delivery – that helped propel Gray and White Ladder to broader success, both of which are celebrated with this anniversary edition.
What’s most interesting in this package are the bonus tracks, many of which feature live drums rather than the programmed drums so prominent on White Ladder and its most well-known tracks. On “Over My Head,” the only recognizable element is Gray’s inimitable voice, here augmented by the aforementioned live drums, tinnier acoustic guitar, strings and an additional, female harmony vocal. “Monday Morning” is more of a piece with White Ladder and would’ve sounded fine on the original album, but tracks like “Tired of Me” sound more like his earlier work, material that, while still of high quality, failed to resonate. Regardless, the 10 bonus tracks offer a welcome contextualization of Gray’s work before his breakthrough.
The music reflects what in hindsight can be viewed as much simpler, more optimistic times. Things would quickly change; within a year of White Ladder’s release, the world would never been the same. But for a brief moment, David Gray and his acoustic/electric optimism helped soundtrack the world. As we all shutter ourselves in and question what the future may hold, 2020 may well be a perfect time in which to revisit its calming potential.