Since the ’70s at least, the British breed of singer/songwriter has been hardier than America’s — more pub-minded than coffee-housed, comfortable in the form’s solitude, less obliged to its pure acoustic trappings and closer in spirit to the wandering minstrels of past centuries. Crew-cut ex-punk David Gray (who was born in Manchester, raised in Wales, attended the University of Liverpool and settled in London) sings with the chilly gusto of an autumn wind blowing on his first album, A Century Ends. Whether trying to rustle himself up an afternoon’s “Debauchery” or watching a romance fade in “Shine,” taking solace in “the light that shines through the windows of your soul” (“Gathering Dust”) or losing patience as he stares out a train window (“Wisdom”), Gray sings with equal parts sensitivity and vitality, emotional attributes that underscore the Van Morrison qualities of his tenor. A handful of sympathetic sidemen (including Neill MacColl of the Bible and Liberty Horses) back up his simple strumming and husky, accented voice with tastefully energetic encouragement. Excellent.
MacColl leads the informal band into semi-electric ladyland on Flesh, using grander arrangements that, thanks to an excess of extroversion in the overall effort, turn the Gaelic aspect of Gray’s music dismayingly toward the Waterboys. A couple of quiet songs performed alone (“Falling Free” on piano, “Lullaby” on guitar) and the all-acoustic “Mystery of Love” do a lot to ameliorate the zeal displayed elsewhere, but the damage is done, and the album is a disappointment. “When I hear you laugh/I got a sword to stem the rivers/And cut the moon in half.” Big dreams, big songs, bad idea.