Tuesday, 5 January 2010
Alphabet of Hurricanes
After your wise, funny, critical, thoughtful and occasionally absurd advice for my press release, I thought I'd share with you what poet Simon Armitage wrote about the new record.
I know it's a bit unfair, especially as you haven't heard the album yet, although there is a free download in the offing! But hopefully you'll be as pleased as I was, as Simon is a hero of mine. It also gave me something to show my family, who still think I work at a donkey sanctuary or something, and are of the opinion that at 40 I should have a real job by now. I especially agree with the opening line - I think he captured me perfectly and with such economy.
Alphabet of Hurricanes
Tom McRae is a smart guy. I’m not just talking about the natty suit-jacket and waistcoat he’s wearing on the cover of his new album The Alphabet of Hurricanes, or the neat way he seems to be goading the dark skies by holding a knackered red brolly, like a storm-battered poppy, to the approaching tempest. I’m talking about the records he makes, and their unapologetic intelligence in a world where popular music has pawned its soul to the television schedules and the light entertainment industry. For four albums and the best part of a decade McRae has followed his own star, gone his own way, been true to those convictions laid down at the very beginning and loyal to his own distinctive brand of song-writing. He believes in language, not just words, and he trusts the silences that sometimes appear in songs – those gaps which open up between verses or even between notes, into which our imaginations pour. Yes there are touchstones: Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Dylan, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Vic Chestnutt, but they’re stepping off points rather than destinations, and what McRae shares with them is the idea of song as an art form. In fact craft might be a more appropriate word as far as McRae is concerned: the song as a kind of craft in which we might float or sail, and the craft required to construct such a vessel.
And now there’s album number five. But what is The Alphabet of Hurricanes? Well, it’s a shipping-forecast of memory, a lexicon of the soul’s meteorology, a Rosetta Stone in the shape of a heart. From Still Love You with its scratchy ukulele and thinned-out voice, like a song through a pinhole-camera, if you can imagine how that would sound. To A is For… with it’s snake-charming, side-winding, fist-strangled clarinets. To Won’t Lie which comes into town under a sombrero on a slow brown donkey with tumbleweed at its heels, and takes a seat next to the band at the back of the saloon, and starts doing its thing until everyone in the bar stops fighting and drinking and starts listening and singing and waltzing. To Summer of John Wayne with its dark piano and minor chords, which has the feel of a slowly resolving black and white photograph on a mantelpiece or an old cine film with the end of the reel ticking away. To the gospel roundelay of Told My Troubles To The River. To the dusk-lit American Spirit, a song sung from the edge of the known world as the sun halves itself in the ocean and McRae’s shipwrecked voice breaks the surface of the water. To the double-tracked Please, which evolves from a toe-tap to a knees-up to a full-blooded stomp and a plea for release, the singer telling us that he doesn’t care anymore when we know damn well that he does. To Out Of The Walls where a songs sits down at the piano while everyone else is asleep and makes its midnight confession, and madness is at the door, and moonlight is at the window, and the song goes on reverberating through the wires and the keys long after the lid has been closed and the light’s gone out and the room stands empty. To the finger-clicking, hand-clapping Me and Stetson which gets us back on our feet again, a guitar line like a mosquito buzzing around in the background, a horn section to blow your hat off, the voice jumping about in a locked trunk with a megaphone and a dictionary before the ambulance arrives. To Best Winter, simple, beautiful, spare, terse, honest, intimate, a public declaration of private matters, a particular examination of universal concerns, handing on to the unravelling storyline of Fifteen Miles Downriver which begins with the unreliable clasp of snakeskin bracelet and ends mid-ocean, middle of nowhere, back of beyond, happy to drift but with one eye on the possibility of land, plotting a course with one of the best lyrics I’ve heard in years.
These are ghost songs by one of our best living song-writers. The world needs more Tom McRae. And, as luck would have it, here it is.