Ghostly, Velvet and Familiar
In the booklet for this, his second album, Tom McRae explains that the title is from a poem by Simon Armitage, a British poet—“a genius, go buy everything he’s ever done”. The poem in question, called “I say, I say, I say”, opens with the query “Anyone here had a go at themselves for a laugh?” and ends with the sentence “Come clean, come good, / repeat with me the punchline / Just like blood! / when those at the back rush forwards to say / how a little love goes a long long long way”. As with a lot of Simon Armitage’s work, a subject of grave significance—here obviously self-harm, if not actually attempted suicide—is addressed unflinchingly, his empathy and wit tempering a visceral darker side, crafting poems whose delicate intimacy does not diffuse any of their fundamental power.
Tom McRae’s own lyrics certainly tread the uncertain but exceedingly human boundaries between affection, pain and defiance, moving sometimes apace and at others almost slowing to a halt, whilst all the while the cold tides of mourning stroke gently against his bare legs. Not depression, as such, for his musings retain a reflective sweetness, and certainly not a Coldplay-esque mooning around because you haven’t seen your Hollywood girlfriend for a few days, you miss your comfort blanket and you’ve just guiltily realized that your last tour put your GNP above Ecuador’s. Rather, his songs reveal someone in tune with what the Japanese term “monono-no aware”, which is to say, the underlying sadness of being.
Over the bell-like glockenspiel beds of opener “A Day Like Today”, he regrets only having “his version of the truth” to offer as comfort whilst rising pizzicato strings hike up the tension, before drifting away into silence as he vows “If you let me / I will love you / to death” without any overtones of threat or happiness in his voice, merely certainty. “You Only Disappear” sets out the pain of letting yourself love, when the subject must always be finite and fading, departing “with a word / with a light / with a smile that says goodbye”. McRae’s lilting backing vocals float over a deeply sweeping cello, sawing gently at the tearducts whilst his voice seems at once desperate and accepting.
On closer “Human Remains”, he portrays a couple on the point of splitting-up leafing through a photo album, the chorus gently repeating “Soon enough / soon enough / this will all be a memory / and soon enough / yeah soon enough / it will fade like a photograph… of you and me” before, over the comforting guitar and ethereal effects, he appends “This is not enough / no, this is not enough / for any of us / to be…” A masterfully restrained depiction of how curios of better times, of better us, are both woefully inadequate and yet somehow painfully piercing (“Strange how through time / we look the same / your eyes and mine / looking away / too sad to see / human remains”) is brought to a close along with the album when McRae inquires of his other half “you’re looking away / looking for what’s next… tell me what’s next?”, his hushed tones helpless to prevent change that, in any event, he’s too worn down to fight against anymore.
“Stronger Than Dirt” sees him reconciling himself with the dissolution of another relationship (“I will still be here / when the dust has cleared / will you?”, “You will never get close to me / this is / who we are”), whilst the strangely apocalyptic romance of “Walking 2 Hawaii” sighs “lead me to the edge / don’t stop / beauty always had a cost / and as the air slips from our lungs / we’ll sing songs / of love / oh love”, his voice peeling away into the depths of rippling bassline and eerie, treated cello like a Celtic diver in Le Grand Bleu abandoning a sunlit life for the dark, without regret. “Mermaid Song” is positively spectral at times, its icy calm broken by sudden surges of distorted guitar or tides of bass, whilst “Karaoke Soul” backs up McRae’s righteous ire at the superficial, hollow mendacity of so much of modern culture with orchestration that crescendos ever higher as the track bears on, until you think your heart is going to burst in your chest.
Barring the occasional forcefully dramatic moment such as the above, however, this is a much subtler, less driving collection of songwriting than the bare bleakness of his debut: songs for a cold dawn rather than the dead of night. The more downtempo compositions tend to suffer slightly from this restraint, lacking anything to cut straight though the skin if you’re not in the right mood, and consequently requiring a few listens before Mcrae’s yearning, vulnerable songwriting takes hold. As this album was released nearly two years ago in the UK, it would also have been wonderful to have the two b-sides from the “Karaoke Soul” single included here, as they were both shatteringly lovely (“She said: feed me feathers, because I long to smile” remains one of my favorite opening lines ever, and I’d exchange you the whole of A Rush Of Blood… for “Precious Cargo”). What we do get is “Streetlight”, a quiet B-side from the first album, and a KCRW session of “Walking 2 Hawaii” that’s slower and more intimate than the studio version; elegiac lushness replacing eldritch dramatics at no cost to emotional power.
This is a record from a man who weaves small moments of mournful magic into all he creates, capturing those instances of sadness so intense they make you shiver, then emerging, though tormented, with something blessedly like grace.
And Simon Armitage? He’s a genius. Buy everything he’s ever done.
// Notes from the Road
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