This is not just a return to a full band sound from Tom McRae but a real sit-up-and-shake-the-cobwebs attempt at reinvention.
McRae’s previous release, From The Lowlands, distilled his introspection down to 48% proof; both lyrically and musically pared to the bone and at times painfully raw. It also felt like part of a slow spiral away from the mainstream that seemed in danger of ending in an album of the singer busking in an underpass.
Refreshingly this new release is a big, percussive, even – dare I say it? – commercial album. Certainly the raft of 4 star reviews from the mainstream music press might stir some hope. There’s plenty of angst here, and darkness, but it’s largely directed outwards rather than inwards, into fables of soaring despair, futile hope, and richly crashing instruments. There’s a sense of McRae (and band) experimenting musically and vocally. The opening track, “The High Life”, is almost off-puttingly delivered in an Old West leer that sets a mood of ominous americana. The rest of the album wisely sees McRae’s pure voice used more traditionally, but there remains a ragged quality at times that suits the emotion. These are tales of people driven to the edge of existence; when he wails “I am lost now” over and over in “The Dogs Never Sleep” it’s hard to disbelieve him.
That’s not to say the album doesn’t deliver variety. From the ballad of “Christmas Eve, 1943” to the spare “Let Me Grow Old With You” to the propulsive pop protest of “We Are The Mark” it’s a diverse and rewarding set of songs.
It’s also far from a complete departure for McRae, with seeds of americana and musical experimentation evident in ‘The Alphabet of Hurricanes’ and ‘Just Like Blood’, but there’s an energy and purpose here that belies the apocalyptic themes.
At only nine tracks the album could perhaps use one more killer tune. A tune, perhaps, like the thundering single “What A Way To Win A War” or the joyous “The Breeze Blows Cold”, both relegated to the companion disk ‘The Buzzard Tree Sessions’. Artistically they might be at odds with the feel of the album, but in terms of quality they’re every bit its equal.