While always critically lauded, mainstream commercial success has so far eluded Tom McRae. OK, so he’s not going to be bothering either Simon Cowell or the upper reaches of the singles charts any time soon, but his emotionally charged songwriting and uber-passionate delivery should have propelled the English vicars’ son (both his parents were Church Of England pastors) onto bigger stages over the decade since his incredible, eponymous debut.
The Alphabet Of Hurricanes, his fifth opus, was written and recorded over three years of touring, and yet it feels like a cohesive piece of work. From the opening, acoustic -Still Love You’ right through to the -Fifteen Miles Downriver’, up there with the highlights from his back catalogue, there’s a unity of purpose and vision to this album that belies its nomadic gestation. The mostly acoustic arrangements won’t surprise any longtime McRae aficionados, nor will the literary qualities of his wordplay – McRae’s use of simile and metaphor could be taught at third level – but like his previous albums, you shouldn’t expect to fall in love with it at first listen.
OK, so -Told My Troubles To The River’ and -Out Of The Walls’ are a bit McRae-by-numbers, but they’re the only two fillers out of the dozen tracks here. Highlights include -American Spirit’ and -Won’t Lie’, the latter reminiscent of a companion piece to -Karaoke Soul’, one of the standouts from his sophomore album Just Like Blood: it’s an emotionally charged affair, couched in a whirligig, almost vaudeville backing track, and once it gets a grip on your cranium, it’s Rottweiller-like in its single-mindedness. -Summer Of John Wayne’ and -Best Winter’ are beautifully tender, disarmingly simple tunes, the former tinged with despondency, the latter suffused with joy, while galloping first single -Please’ and the rollicking (for McRae) blues-tinged -Me & Stetson’ combine his trademark lyricism with a toe-tappingly infectious melody.
Tom McRae’s wordy and worthy soul-searching won’t be to everyone’s tastes, and those of you with an allergy to emotive singer-songwriters would be well advised to steer clear, but as a soundtrack to heartbreak and melancholy, there are few better, while this Alphabet even ends with a hint of cautious optimism for the future