Bleak second outing for Mercury/Brit-nominated songsmith
With the universal acclaim accorded 2000’s eponymous debut, Suffolk-born McRae hoisted himself firmly into the vanguard of the new acoustic wagon train. Since then, of course, the field has become saturated with sensitive singer/songwriter types whose frailty is matched by earnestness. Thankfully, McRae remains ahead of the pack.
Produced by Ben (Blur/Elbow) Hillier, Just Like Blood occupies the same territory as Tom McRae, though at least a couple of hues darker, haunted at the edges, by turns stony and impassioned. Loosely themed around the idea of travel?be it arrivals, departures, or just wishing you were somewhere else?there’s palpable menace beneath the softly-softly facade. McRae’s songs are emotionally and politically inseparable, so seemingly simple love songs are really choking messages to the human race. At times, his swooping voice is so hushed you strain to hear it, wrapped in acoustic guitars and strings, lulling you into a false sense of serenity. It’s like lounging on a summer beach, then having sand ground into your eyes.
“Stronger Than Dirt” is typical: a mesh of spindly guitars, a slap of drums and McRae’s buttery timbre declaring the importance of standing for what you believe in (“I’ll still be here when the dust has cleared/Will you?”). “Walking2Hawaii”, too, summons its power not from sonic bravura?though, despite the sparse arrangements, there’s a richness of tone, a fullness of expression here?but from the quiet smoulder, its bleak intensity unpicking the common illusions of everyday experience: “Falling feels like flying/Until you hit the ground/Everything is beautiful/Until you look around”.
Occasionally he broadens the palette for added oomph (“Mermaid Blues” has distorted synths like a squadron of harriers on afterburn while a raft of xylophones surf through “A Day Like Today”), but this is largely subversion through stealth. Even the poppiest cut, “Karaoke Soul”, is a broadside at our Will’n’Gareth culture. Closing track “Human Remains”, however, is darkness incarnate, bemoaning the universal inability to address the present (“Looking away, too scared to see human remains/Soon enough, soon enough, this will all be a memory”) and proving that McRae’s venom is ultimately borne of concern, not contempt.
This is beautiful, chilling stuff.