I bet you’ve heard the song “Babylon” by David Gray. It’s the kind of song that immediately draws you in, and the first time you hear it you know it’ll be around for a long time. “Let go of your heart, let go of your head, and feel it now,” he sings in the chorus, followed by the word “Babylon,” which fits so perfectly in the groove and the melody that it’s hard to imagine anything else in its place. What a strange word to throw into a song about a broken relationship, right? But wait. Let’s put on our school caps and take a quick look at what’s unfolding in the lyric.
The first verse (Friday night) is about the main character’s regret at the way a relationship has gone, specifically about “jealousy,” “bitterness,” and “ridicule,” while the second verse (Saturday night) is about running away from the girl, and realizing in a crowd of people that he just wants to be with her. The third verse is Sunday morning, and he’s turning around and coming home to find her waiting. Each chorus ends with “Babylon,” which, as you may remember, was the city of the Jews’ exile. The Psalmist, in one of the most painfully beautiful images in the Bible, wrote about how God’s people sat and wept by the rivers of Babylon when they remembered Zion, their true home. Now the word “Babylon” makes sense in a song about exile and return. Brilliant. And brilliant, too, that he doesn’t go out of his way to connect all those dots for the listener. Honestly, until I really stopped and thought about it (and spent some time poking around the web) I didn’t get it. But I didn’t care, because the song is so spot on, musically and lyrically, it didn’t matter to me. I don’t know what David Gray believes, or what he intended with the Babylon reference, but man, that song rings my bells.
Let’s take a minute and listen again, now that we’ve dwelt on the lyric.
In the past few years (thanks to my pal Josh Petersen) I’ve become a huge David Gray fan. His songs are—well, they’re songs. You can hear real growth in his songwriting and production as the albums go by, but I never lose the feeling that these songs are, at their core, the product of a guy sitting at a piano in a lonely room and trying hard to say something of what’s going on in his heart and the world around him. There’s real passion there, the sense that David is compelled to open up his soul and shout, to declare something. Sometimes, especially in the early stuff, there’s a growl to his voice that’s well suited to the dark commentary he’s making on society and the brokenness he seems unable to escape. But once you get to White Ladder, the record that more or less put him on the international map, the songs are more relational, more honest—still directed outward but from a deeper, more tender place. That’s when we get to hear “Babylon.”
I don’t think it’s possible to open up the way he does and not wrestle with ultimate questions about humanity, about God, about the way love hurts and heals us. On the album Life in Slow Motion there’s a song—a painfully sad song—called “Ain’t No Love.” The refrain repeats the phrase “There ain’t no love that’s guiding me,” and in an interview I found online he said,
I’ve never had a religious inclination. This sense that there’s some sort of love that shapes our lives is surely wrong. It’s far deeper forces than that. It’s survival and nurture and instinct, it’s animal and it’s very core. That’s what our existence is and I think that notion just struck a chord with me.
I confess, it’s unsettling to hear him sing this song on the live record, especially with a crowd cheering and singing along. I don’t think there could be a deeper force at work in the world than love—not with all the beauty and kindness at war with the ugliness and hatred that’s both out there and inside of us. But I’m left with a bit of disbelief that he could be the poet that he is, that he could have such a wild imagination and the ability to express things so beautifully and yet remain convinced that there’s no mystery at work in the world, nothing behind the veil to explain something as pure and as moving as music itself. A further irony is that he recorded that album in his studio in England, a studio called the Church, housed in an old stone church building. He even said in another interview that the songs on that record, written quite literally by the light of the stained glass windows overhead, had a “hymn-like quality.”
Then on the same record you get lyrics like this one:
Slowly the truth is loading I’m weighted down with love Snow lying deep and even Strung out and dreaming of Night falling on the city Quite something to behold Don’t it just look so pretty This disappearing world We’re threading hope like fire Down through the desperate blood Down through the trailing wire Into the leafless wood Night falling on the city Quite something to behold Don’t it just look so pretty This disappearing world
He seems to acknowledge that there is such a thing as beauty—beauty strong enough to stop you in your tracks—and truth to weigh you down like snow on a city, love transcendent enough to get you to sit down at a piano and try to find words for it. That’s a religious inclination if ever there was one.
His latest album, Mutineers (a few albums after Life in Slow Motion) is another masterful batch of songs, and the production is courageous, which tells me that he’s working hard, pushing himself artistically and lyrically. And right out of the gate, we hear a bright new hope in “Back in the World.” I don’t know what happened in his life between Life in Slow Motion and Mutineers, but it seems significant that the opening track is a joyous admission that there’s been some turn, a change of heart that has brought him back to life somehow.
Every day when I open my eyes now It feels like a Saturday Taking down from the shelf All the parts of myself That I packed away If it’s Love lifts us up from the dark Is it God by another name? Who’s to say how it goes? All I know is I’m back in the world again Like the lift of a curse Got a whole different person Inside my head No more trudging around Stony eyed through the town Like the living dead If it’s Love put the joy in my heart Is it God by another name? Who’s to say how it goes? All I know is I’m back in the world again Back in the world again
I can’t listen to this song without smiling. And part of my enjoyment comes from the reward of listening to the story that unfolds in the music of an artist willing to bear witness to the great mystery of his own heart. It may not always make sense, especially to him. But our stories are always in flux, progressing from stage to stage, often from anger to regret to forgiveness—like in “Babylon”—from disbelief to wonder, from loss to discovery. When an artist has the privilege of a long career, the listener gets to experience that progression along with him, to see the unfolding of a life into, as C. S. Lewis said, either light or darkness, grace or denial, a hardening of heart of the beautifying of one.
A few weeks back David came to Nashville and played a wonderful set—though a thunderstorm cut it tragically short—while I sat with Josh and my sons and felt, from 100 feet away, the honesty and passion that he poured into his performance. As a singer-songwriter, I was deeply moved to keep working at my craft. I have a long way to go. As a man watching the show with his boys, I couldn’t deny the sense that there is a great love that’s guiding him, and guiding us all.
So, David, in case you happen to read this, thank you for the work you so obviously put into your art, for your willingness to ask questions, for the gift you’ve been given to see that there is, in fact, a tremendous beauty in the world. It’s calling to you. I know, because it’s called to me through you.
Keep listening for it. ———————— I’m not sure if it’ll work or not, but I put together a little David Gray primer of a playlist on iTunes. Click here in case you’re looking for a good place to start.