I loved David Gray. Century’s End, Flesh and Sell, Sell, Sell were like a prophet spitting out spiritual depth charge after charge. I remember researching my essay on his work in my book The Rock Cries Out and the abundance of provocative thoughts was so overwhelming that I could only listen to a couple songs at time.
I was so pleased when White Ladder finally took off. I had bought the original Irish release, out before anyone outside Ireland was interested. It took time. Irish DJ Donal Dineen took Gray on as a crusade and I was so pleased the first time I heard Babylon on the radio. Recognition at last.
Something got lost though. Maybe it was just more subtle but I missed the angsty protest and social critique of Let the Truth Sting, Birds Without Wings and What Are You?. The more popular it got the less I bothered.
Until now. Skellig. Oh my. Skellig is a rough and wild outcrop of rock off the west coast of Ireland. In the 6th Century monks lived in stone beehives upon its dangerous jagged rocky edges. The extreme measures of it caught David Gray’s attention and through it he got mine:
Gray speaks of Skellig, the place, “Pondering that idea, of setting up a monastery in such a remote place, how close to God could you possibly wish to be? It blows my mind anyway, to get so close to God in a contemplative way.”
You can see why I am hooked. The thing is that the entire album seems to have the reflective spirit of those monks. It is as if his meditations on Skellig as he lived through lockdown. The entire album is like seeking the purity of our core humanity, stripping back, finding the wonder.
Accumulation seems to the antithesis, like a throw back to Sell, Sell, Sell. What we need to find refuge and escape from:
Mindless need is loosed among us
In our homes and down our streets
Singing like some mythic creature
Of great Edеns, through the gates
And you can have bеtter suction
Even wanton destruction
And all of this at very competitive rates
There is something about the sound of the music that is like a 21st century sound of those monks praying. The album was made over 5 days, like a creative retreat. It is simple, quietly gentle, very organic. Contemplative.
It is beautiful, at times poetry, at times beautiful melody, always engaging. The backing vocals are not at all big but sound as Gray himself puts it, “like a Celtic Choir”.
To these ears it is soothing, interrogating, loving and uncomfortably challenging all at once. Like a Sacred Retreat might be. I am back to those pre White Ladder days when I was sure that it would be revealed that Gray had been brought up in Welsh Presbyterianism. I couldn’t believe it when he hadn’t.
Well, on Skellig it is not so much Presbyterians as he is channeling 6th Century Irish monks that he channeling and prodding my soul again… so beautifully.