When his Mercury-nominated eponymous debut was released in 2000, his haunting melodies earned him comparisons with Nick Drake, while his poetically eerie lyrics hailed him as the new Bob Dylan. His third album, the excellent All Maps Welcome, confirmed him as England’s very own troubadour, whose success was as reclusive as the singer himself.
But his fifth studio album – the first of two volumes – is more of a continuation of his last record, the rather lacklustre and self-indulgent King Of Cards. Although he wrote and recorded it over the past three years in varied settings, McRae seems to have remained on the same wavelength and style, wrongly thinking that he should remain the lone man strumming the sounds of melancholy on his guitar.
The Alphabet Of Hurricanes starts dull, rises on a high note in between, before ending on a low one. He may have moved back to England from LA, but Tom McRae is still an aficionado of Americana and even Hollywood; he loves to pepper its popular TV shows with snippets of his music. It’s the songs which explore the American landscape that are the most interesting.
Me and Stetson and Summer of John Wayne do conjure up images of the Far West and cowboys – and bare his own angst-ridden soul (still? At 40?): “A summer of John Wayne getting older /Reel after reel/ And playing old soldiers with old wounds.” American Spirit is a song of hope: “Hold your breath, there’s still time left.”
The pared-down, stripped-bare arrangements reflect deep grassroots America through the generous use of the mandolin, ukulele, banjo and violin, giving it some folklorist hues. The upbeat Told My Troubles To The River and Won’t Lie offers a multitude of sounds, as does the instrumental A Is For…, perhaps written while he was having an experimental moment that could have taken this record to a new plateau with his unique ability to construct songs.
The lyrics remain stark as always, sensitive and contemplative at best and grumpy at worst, released through strained vocals reflective of his signature melancholy. We have visions of black clouds raining down pellets of black thoughts on him, his eternal sources of inspiration. But there is such a thing as being too contemplative. Some of his inner thoughts are downright cheesy, like on Best Winter, a track that you might hear in a snowy scene on Gossip Girl. He does, though, tell us that “Sometimes rain is just rain” on Can’t Find You.
Tom McRae is so desperately trying to convince us that he’s still a curmudgeon and angst continues to fill his soul, but it sounds unconvincingly flat. We do not expect him to rock like a hurricane but to at least live up to the album title’s rage. Hopefully he will in that second volume, set for release later this year.