David Gray's bleak, lovely new album, ''Life in Slow Motion," opens with the sound of a string section, graciously paced and deadly somber, as if to announce that there's some serious business to follow. And there is. Gray has traded his humble if carefully crafted techno-folk approach for something far grander and graver. ''Where'd it all go wrong?" Gray asks at the outset, and he goes on to ponder, in heartsick lyrics and rapturous melodies, what he views as the dismal state of humanity.
He also investigates state-of-the-art sound recording for the first time. Gray is out of his closet-size London sitting room -- where, with an acoustic guitar and some samplers, he made his 1999 breakthrough, ''White Ladder" -- and into a proper studio, which, thanks to ''White Ladder," he owns.
The new album is lush but mild mannered, sometimes frustratingly so. The Adult Alternative genre is a tricky one, and producer Marius de Vries, who's worked with Bjork, Madonna, and Rufus Wainwright, errs on the side of the grown-ups: Instruments are clean and crisp, arrangements build logically, and a soothing sheen coats the whole collection. The first single, ''The One I Love," is sung from the point of view of a man who's been shot on a battlefield and is lying in a pool of his own blood, but the dense and loping backing track -- intended, one imagines, to evoke a Springsteenian rootlessness -- feels more innocuous than provocative.
Happily, that's the exception. For the most part Gray hasn't lost sight of the edge, and though his is hardly razor-sharp, he avoids banality by skewering his winsome chord changes with gentle sonic oddities and emotional grit. The title song lurches and teeters to its elegiac peak, while ''Ain't No Love" (one of two tracks written for the 2004 film ''A Way of Life") anoints a flood of words about losing faith with an angelic choir and quivering violins. Even ''Now and Always," which tries very hard to be a straightforward love song, gets a few bars of bleating harmonica, if only to point out the ugliness that lies just outside the tenuous haven of human connection.
The final song, ''Disappearing World," is Gray at his apocalyptic finest -- weighted down with tenderness and doom, ''threading hope like fire" as he kisses civilization goodbye in a massive, euphoric rush, only to find himself back where he started: alone with his piano, marveling at how pretty the mess looks.