If you gave me a penny for every pain-racked, acoustic guitar-wielding singer-songwriter, I could have built my own recording empire. A good night out would probably cure most of them of their woes, though in the case of Tom McRae you get the feeling the wretchedness runs deeper. His self-titled debut album, released three years ago, was a work of stunning, sinister beauty; his latest CD, Just Like Blood (the title comes from the poem "I Say I Say I Say" by Simon Armitage), is an impassioned essay on love and solitude.
That's not to say McRae, 29, is without humour. "Welcome to laugh-along with Tom," he says dryly after a bleak rendition of "You Cut Her Hair" ("Time has coloured in the black and white of your sin"). Next is "Mermaid Blues", introduced by our black-clad host as "another happy song about drowning"; in fact it's an eerie elegy punctuated by grim silences and spookily discordant strings. When some wag yells: "Sing us a sad song", McRae replies with a smile, "Boy, have you ended up at the right gig".
You don't imagine that this Suffolk-born singer would be the life and soul of a party but, as the front runner in a new, oversubscribed generation of sad-eyed troubadours, he has advantages over his rivals.
Fear and dislocation may pervade most of McRae's songs but he avoids the tortured histrionics. His voice – by turns raspy and smooth – perfectly conveys the melancholy, sometimes spiteful, lyric sentiments. He has a chilling way with words, too. As he murmurs the refrain "If you let me I could love you to death" in "A Day Like Today" you can feel a collective shiver running down the spines of the crowd.
For all his subtlety and restraint, McRae can make noise. In "Karaoke Soul", about how appearances can be deceptive, he and his band – a curly-haired cellist, a keyboardist and a bassist who sidelines on the bongos – come very close to rocking.
"It's a miserable night outside," says McRae, "and I guess it's not that different inside." He's not wrong, though it's the best miserable night I've had in a while.
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