Pat MacDonald, 'Begging Her Graces'

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The Independent Culture

"The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades": one casual phrase, caught somewhere between the irony of its intent and the crude optimism of the Eighties US in which it was written and received, and Pat MacDonald, at the very start of his career, found he had already written his definitive work, the tag they'll inscribe on his tombstone. It was his band Timbuk3's only hit of consequence, beamed round the world in the early years of MTV's dominance. MacDonald has only now tried to slip from its shadow, abandoning Timbuk3 and the past it couldn't shake for a simpler, solo life.

He survived as a songwriter in his band's lean years with work on soundtracks and a helping creative hand to mediocre talent from Aerosmith to Zucchero, but his debut solo LP, Begging Her Graces, shows that his talent for the lacerating phrasemaking and the ornery, resistant spirit that "Shades" implied is intact. With the Virgin Mary offering her naked body on its sleeve, PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish adding a spartan atmosphere, and songs twisting humorously on the knife of obsessive love, it's a delicately offensive treat. You can't say that for Huey Lewis and the News.

Squeezed on to the bottom of several bills in the UK this week, though, strumming his guitar alone, MacDonald is making his perhaps deliberately reduced circumstances clear. Scrawnily muscular, with cheekbones carved deep to the point of emaciation, a high forehead and a weird curtain of long hair, he plays only one song tonight that addresses his lost fame: "The Tyranny of Beauty", with its call to arms on behalf of forcibly retired stars, "a bit ugly and strange like me". In fact, with his high, keening voice and an attitude clearly doubting any of the substantial crowd are here for him, he has awkward charisma more than sufficient to pull us into his post-Timbuk world.

In what is in effect an old-fashioned songwriter's showcase, other songs add up to a parade of denial, desperation and self-deception, the sound of a man hanging on to something gone - a woman, mostly - much too long. The description of crushing loss in "Jaws of Life" - "How did I arrive here in this burial ground?" - lets him hit rock-bottom, and perhaps it's for the best that whichever real-life heartbreak inspired him occurred away from the public eye. This high-quality half-hour does suggest, though, that if the bright future MacDonald once sang of does come his way again, he'll be ready.