Northern poet Simon Armitage’s “Say Say Say” is addressed “to those in the dark, at the back”. Tom McRae evidently views himself as one of those tortured souls, and he borrows the title for his second album from the same poem. It is a poem about slitting your wrists in the bath. For the hell of it. Just Like Blood is the punch line that the failed suicide should supposedly retort when told that “a little love can go a long, long way”. Cheerful it is not.
Blood, suicide, and love inevitably loom large, but despite the despondency, the 28-year old London-based singer/songwriter’s return is a triumph. Just Like Blood has ambitious scope and the courage of its epic convictions. McRae’s bruised voice has acquired further subtlety, and his ethereal delivery of “Overthrown” is almost feminine. “Karaoke Soul” launches straight in with an armada of punching strings, but McRae’s voice, between whisper and wail, refuses to drown under the orchestral weight. “Mermaid Blues” goes so far as to offset his delivery with jagged feedback. There even seems to be unifying aquatic theme. There’s swimming, drowning, ships, beaches, sharks, “mermaid blues” and a “sea of fools”. Back into that bathtub I guess
The eponymous first album showed real promise, but was far from being the finished article that many saluted it as. The songwriting showed craft but the lyrics were often trite. McRae’s lyrics have improved; but they are still his weakest suit. “Just like Blood” thankfully sees him relying more on the obscure and mysterious, but he can still miss the mark, for example: “Shape your mouth to fit these words of war / I see the arrows falling backwards, falling for a cause”. What?
On his previous album, McRae spoilt his best song by calling it “The End of the World News”. Again, in the best song on this album, “Walking 2 Hawaii”, he sings of watching the “world go down in flames”. Maybe I’m alone, but I have a real problem with songs about Armageddon (with the possible exception of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun”). I’d rather that was left to the Old Testament and death metal. As close as those bed-sit walls may get, there is a whole other world out there.
Despite this irritation, Just like Blood is the progressive move few other “singer/songwriters” (and there is a plethora of the blighters here in the UK) would have the courage to take. In that, the real leap forward is in the production. The album just sounds so much richer than its sparse predecessor. Ben Hillier’s previous credits include working with Elbow and it is their excellent “Scattered Black and Whites” which strikes me as the most valuable touching point (not the lazy Nick Drake/David Gray tosh that is thrown his way). The trademark insistent, insidious bass crops up over and over again — with especial purpose in “Walking 2 Hawaii”. If McRae keeps working with Hillier, there could be a rich future in the offing.