It’s a relief to find good things coming out of the pandemic, however seemingly minor they are in the bigger picture. We need art, books, painting, music, movies, theater, et al, to shout out that we’re here, here’s what our lives looked like, we mattered. The nine songs included on James Raftery’s latest release, Tornado, are profoundly human. He has the unabashed willingness to confront life’s good and bad in equal measure free from sentimentality rife in many pop songs. Of course, he bows to convention, but it comes at key moments, and yes, it’s a relatively melancholy ride for listeners. There’s an air of triumph, however, surrounding Tornado because James Raftery, and by proxy the rest of us, are still standing despite whatever life has thrown at us. At least for now.
The songwriting on this album makes a deep impression from the first. “Gardener” is an excellent choice for beginning this release and introduces many of the aspects of its sound that persists throughout. He takes his voice is dizzying directions rather than following a single trajectory and, though there is post-production adornment affecting the vocals, his voice cuts through any audio trickery.
The words for each of the album’s nine tracks stand out for multiple reasons but one of their chief qualities is Raftery’s talent for climatic and impactful lines. He has a near-painter like skill for clarifying a miasma of emotion with a single phrase like some sort of songwriting brushstroke. “Going It Alone” is cut from the same cloth in this regard. Matters of the heart are a great concern on Raftery’s album but he writes about this time-tested topic with vulnerability only a few achieve. He creates an appealing ebb and flow for listeners to follow.
“Wonderful Always” sparkles for a lot of reasons. Many will enjoy hearing how his artful use of synthesizers mimics orchestral instruments such as violin and fewer, but a substantial number, will admire how careful he is about placing such moments in his work. This is a deliberate creative sensibility behind the album, a conscious artist at work, and anyone who prizes well-crafted songs will revel in this release. “Strange to Me” doesn’t differ much, musically, from the other tracks but has a hint of more commercial aspirations. His melodies work quite well in this piano-centered environment. You’ll get the feeling, however, that they could work just as well with full band arrangements.
Not that he needs to change. The title song and final cut is one of the centerpiece moments. It relies on many of the same strengths serving his collection from beginning to end and many listeners will believe he unites the album’s themes in a final statement full with poetic imagery and the conversational eloquence. Tornado is a fulfilling musical work and a revealing, yet never embarrassing or obscure, listening experience. For those familiar with his talents, it’s an affirmation of his gifts, and for newcomers it will likely prod them to seek out more. James Raftery is well worth the time.