The most apt way to describe an album like Nathan Gray’s Working Title would be ‘familiar’, but stripping back the negative connotations that tends to come with a word like that. After all, the punk-frontman-turned-solo-troubadour template isn’t necessarily new, but historically it’s yielded a string of good results, and given that Gray’s work outside of his day job as Boysetsfire frontman has followed a similar pattern, there’s really no need to be too apprehensive. In the vein of rustic, heart-on-sleeve acoustic work, 2018’s Feral Hymns had all of the necessary weight and earnestness that these albums tend to really hold dear, and though it mightn’t have set Gray up within the scene with the same leverage as a Chuck Ragan or a Dave Hause, the fact that it’s resulted in a follow-up highlights rather strongly that there’s a lot of potential to still be tapped.
But then again, ‘potential’ isn’t often a word that used for albums like this, mostly because it’s just not applicable a good deal of the time. As much as some of these artists have made bona fide careers out of their side work, often it’s still presented like side work, with each subsequent iteration feeling like a rough approximation of everything that came before. Working Title feels different though, not only in how the overall execution has been tightened and bolstered, but how the sound itself has evolved into something more vibrant and, crucially, diverse. Outside of that particular vacuum it mightn’t seem all that impressive, but Working Title is definitely a likable album even removed from context, and shows a good deal more versatility to give Gray something of an edge among his contemporaries.
A big factor in that comes in the sound that Gray has chosen to pursue here, falling in line with alt-punk route taken by an artist like Dave Hause where the full band gives these tracks some more muscle and drive, but the emphasis is still on Gray as a frontman. It’s the wisest possible move to make, not only because he’s a pretty impressive singer in his own right, especially when given some more restrained, elegant backing like the ornate piano and strings on Refrain, but because some a bit meatier and rollicking feels deeper in his wheelhouse, and he’s able to ride it with a lot more ease. It’s easy to tell from the very first track In My Defense as the mid-paced punk gallop feels like a natural fit for Gray’s rough, impassioned tones, but there’s a particular sense of fist-in-the-air triumph that comes from The Markings and No Way, and bringing Chuck Ragan onboard for backup on the title track is a great accompaniment to the bigger power chords and more explicitly arena-ready pacing. Even if the most creative decisions this album takes don’t veer too far from traditionalism within this scene (and as such, it can overstay it’s welcome slightly at thirteen tracks), there’s never anything that’s outright bad, and as a body of work, Working Title stands out with remarkable consistency, both in Gray’s contributions as a vocalist and how fleshed-out and well-realised the instrumentation and production are.
Again, that might be overselling this album just slightly; it’s not like even its biggest ideas are even ceiling-smashingly big after all, and particularly when taking the content into account, Gray’s swings at positivity aren’t exactly going for precision as much as the unavoidable populism that, admittedly, he can sell well. It’s a wise move to bring everything back to himself as he addresses his own attempts at self-improvement and constantly moving forward on the likes of I’m A Lot and the title track, but having that sort of confidence and good will radiate out makes for a pleasing amount of dimensionality. It comes through in how bombastic and triumphant songs like Hold and Never Alone are, as Gray emanates an appreciation for all those who’ve stuck by him and supported him, but is also willing to reach out and help those who need it most, especially those in marginalised communities for whom safety and security isn’t guaranteed. There’s a warmth to the whole sentiment that fits perfectly with the rich instrumental canvas, and the combination of Gray’s affability and the incredibly accessible nature of it all really does hit all the right spots.
It’s nothing revolutionary, but Working Title is the sort of album that’s so easy to just pick up and play because of how likable it is. It’s an easy sell anyway given the stunning track record of alt-punk recently, but Gray’s drive and passion combined with a keen ear for a hook really does turn out something good, if not necessarily leaping over the threshold into greatness. It’s definitely close though, particularly for how well Gray can work with the balance of everyman perspective and buoyant, ever-appealing punk, and a few more tweaks could see those extra steps already taken turn into something serious. Given the penchant that Gray has already shown for evolving his sound, it’d be wrong to bet against it.
For fans of: Dave Hause, The Gaslight Anthem, Vinnie Caruana
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Working Title’ by Nathan Gray is released on 31st January on End Hits Records.