“Here we are in the darkest place”. Welcome back Tom McRae. It’s good to know all that American West Coast sunshine hasn’t mellowed the man at all. That’s not to say his music hasn’t evolved; written while living in Los Angeles, McRae’s third album has a more minimal sensibility than its predecessors Just Like Blood and his deliciously dark eponymous debut. Lyrically however we’re on familiar territory. All Maps Welcome treads that same black line.
Betrayal, obsession and pain. McRae has never disguised his melancholic tendencies, he’s revelled in them in fact. He’s an unrepentant misery merchant but his emotional eloquence and finely-honed phrasing usually prevent his bitter hymns from becoming too angst-heavy.
There’s a pared down vibe to this new material. Gone is the oceanic orchestration of Just Like Blood and the reliance on the black buzz of the cello. Instead we have songs like It Ain’t You, so delicate they could almost float away. This is definitely more of a grower than his previous two releases – there’s no real equivalent to dark-hearted anthems The A and B Song or End Of The World News, though Silent Boulevard comes pretty close – already a favourite at his gigs.
Where All Maps Welcome delivers is in moments of eerie beauty and lyrical ingenuity – his affinity with meter and offbeat imagery always raised him a rung above the likes of Damien Rice. Though having said that, this third album sees McRae flirt for the first time with female backing vocals on The Girl Who Falls Down Stairs and My Vampire Heart. It works in context but it’s probably a good thing that he’s chosen to use it only sporadically.
Perhaps inevitably this new album also sees McRae address his success and his current circumstances in song, How the West Was Won and the distinctive Strangest Land, with its smooth, hummed intro, touch upon life as “a stranger in the strangest land.” This is, remember, the man who so eloquently captured Londoners’ love-hate relationship with their grubby, glorious city on, to my mind one of his best songs, Draw Down The Stars. It’s a little odd to hear his viewpoint transplanted in this manner. Odd, but not insurmountably so.
Packing For The Crash manages to lay lyrics full of apocalyptic cynicism (“this is not any golden age we’ve lost”) over a surprisingly poppy melody. My Vampire Heart takes its subject matter a bit too literally, stretching out the metaphor to breaking point with talk of spilt blood and bodies turning to dust, though it reigns it in at the end. Border Song is a fittingly plaintive closing track, McRae’s voice at its most choirboy-like and piercing.
McRae has displayed a healthy lack of preciousness about his material in the past, happy to mock the ‘depressing’ content of his lyrics or the cop-out chorus of Streetlight with its series of “da-da-dums” but his previous work has been strong enough to stand anything he could throw at it. The new album contains some moments of genuine, low-key beauty and shows that McRae is more than capable of evolving musically, but it sometimes lacks the hooks that made its predecessors so compelling. All Maps Welcome: more direction necessary.