“Hey Mr Heartbreak you're back.”
"Hey Mr Heartbreak you're back."
That's right boys and girls, there's a new Tom McRae album in the shops and if you've heard anything of his previous albums, then you'll be hoping for another quality piece of work. After all, his previous three albums are, for want of a slightly less banded around phrase, not too shabby. If you're old fashioned like me and you'll go out and buy the album in an actual shop, then spend the bus ride home perusing the lyric book, at which point you'll be pleased to discover that he's still as grumpy and downbeat as ever.
"Even light dies through the years."
"The strongest will survive but it's the scum that always rises."
"It's a long way down from here."
"I'll watch you fall from a great height. You watch me fail night after night."
"Silent, broken, bruised and cloaked in this desert night."
Oh how I've missed him. Although Tom's lyrics often tend to open the door for your bog standard muso journo to throw the phrase 'tortured singer-songwriter' around his neck, I think there's more to our Mr McRae than that. On King of Cards we do get the obligatory tales of relationships gone bad and rather large dollops of yearning spread around the place but there's not a lot of shoe or navel gazing here. The self pity level is kept to a respectable minimum while the fire and frustration in his belly is given free reign once more, which is a bloody good thing in my book. Also, if you imagine Tom's work as the type you should listen to in a darkened room, this time, he's opened the curtains and let a little light in.
He hinted at this slightly more upbeat direction on his last album, the fabulous All Maps Welcome. Of course, when I say upbeat I'm referring to the music rather than the lyrics, but we've covered that already. Now I'm not saying that it's a happy song, but there's no denying that Silent Boulevard, one of the stand-out tracks from All Maps Welcome, was a bit of a toe tapper and that toe tapping goodness continues here. Take Bright Lights, for example, which is so joyous it seems closer in relation to Springsteen's Born To Run than it does to any of Tom's back catalogue. The Bossness continues with Sound of the City too which, like Bright Lights, centers itself around the piano, allowing the guitar and drums to sound big and vibrant. The triumphant strings that appear towards the end of Bright Lights are as uplifting as Bruce's guitar solos and the E-Street horn section and make the song an absolute joy to listen to – even if, once again, it's not a particularly happy song.
That duality is probably what makes McRae's work stand out for me, the ability he has to craft bitter, angry lyrics around some of the most beautiful and ethereal arrangements is enchanting. With King of Cards, he's made his most accessible and mainstream album to date. The tunes are more immediate and catchy (well, some of them are) and you'll even be able to sing along to a few of them as they contain real, honest to goodness, choruses too. It's a glorious album. This more 'poppy' approach, for want of a better word, has resulted in the inevitable accusation of 'selling out' being thrown in Tom's direction but I ask you this. How do you sell out when you've never really sold anything in the first place?
All I've got to say is that King of Cards is most definitely worthy of your time and money. After all, anybody who can come up with a line like, "It's a clockwork planet and I've broken every key," deserves your attention as far as I'm concerned. And let's remember, they once famously accused Bob Dylan of selling out too. And they were wrong then too.
Words : Damian Leslie