Jensen McRae: Are you happy now? album review

Comparisons were perhaps inevitable given her voice – a brassy alto propelled by a raspy projection – but Jensen McRae wears Tracy Chapman’s affecting on his sleeve. The 24-year-old’s austere folk songs center on lonely guitars, with bluesy grooves and linear narratives delivered in second person. Yet the most striking similarity is the way McRae enunciates, muttering verses with timid distance, embellishing vowels and odd imagery before singing refrains with blatant urgency. These punctuations may be startling, but they rarely seem gratuitous in light of McRae’s allusive subject matter: his early singles confronting abuse and degradationfiltering cheeky candor through an allegorical lens.

If Chapman’s seriousness is at odds with the meme and smart tone of the folk-pop Zennial set, McRae toed the line somewhat. In early 2021, she caught the eye of Phoebe Bridgers with a parody song imagining a breakup at a mass vaccination site, then reused the track from his June EP Who hurt you?. The urge to balance the EP’s heavier themes with self-referential nods was understandable, but it was also a bit redundant given how much of the record’s melodrama worked at face value. Five of Who hurt you? the tracks reappear on McRae’s feature debut, Are you happy now?though the new material supplants the EP’s irreverent moments with a more thoughtful levity.

The best of Who hurt you? the remains form the emotional backbone of the new album. “Starting to Get to You” retains the melancholy of its opening chords, but the song’s economy is masterful. Volleying between floating falsetto and a powerful low register, McRae interweaves hard facts (“You loved me for a second there”) with harsher realizations (“Loving you is a habit”); the pre-chorus and chorus span 12 bars, lingering like an unspoken thought. Sequenced in the second half of the album, “White Boy” and “Wolves” play as companion tracks contrasting the strains of male predators. The first is accredited in an orchestral manifesto; the latter tells of a loss of innocence with barely a melody at all.

These low-key arrangements ensure that McRae’s vocals are the focal point, but the co-star of Are you happy now? is Rahki, a quietly accomplished hip-hop producer whose output in the mid-2010s culminated with “I.” The album’s sounds are distinguished by open-mic sparing, giving the songs some much-deserved headroom. Rahki’s synthetic drumming is particularly brilliant, drawing attention to small flourishes like breezy rimshots on “Good Legs” and foreground cleves on “Take It Easy.” Lively backing vocals accentuate the melodic pivots of “With the Lights On”; on “Starting to Get to You”, a descending bass line punctuates the final chorus like an exclamation point.

The chamber pop instrumentals of “Machines” and “Adam’s Ribs” are slightly overworked, if only because McRae’s modded performances speak for themselves. Are you happy now? is an album about not meeting expectations, or not wanting to, which means finding a balance between grief and resolution. “Happy Girl” splits the difference with clear lyrics and a delightfully moody chorus. “Good Legs” and “Take It Easy” border on easy listening, but McRae shines in the upbeat setting, leaning into big hooks and tacky imagery.

His ballads could still benefit from further refinement – the lumpy title track of “My Ego Dies at the End” is embedded in the song’s chorus – but it’s hard to fault McRae’s instincts. Her remarkable voice is deployed in the service of ambitious statements, and even the detached metaphors of “Wolves” and “Dead Girl Walking” are useful. People have a natural tendency to ignore vulnerable moments, but McRae knows better.