wears the trousers magazine

corinne bailey rae: the sea (2010)
February 1, 2010, 11:00 am
Filed under: album, review | Tags: , ,

Corinne Bailey Rae
The Sea •••½

Some albums should come stickered with a large notice that reads ‘Do not listen for clues’. Corinne Bailey Rae’s second album The Sea was always likely to be listened to in the light of the death of her husband Jason Rae in 2008. That the sleevenotes namecheck him as the motivation and part-inspiration for the recording perhaps allows us to feel less guilty about trying to read the lyrical runes for traces of her loss. Sometimes knowing too much can make you feel prurient, particularly when that loss was the result of a untimely tragedy, but if the grieving artist has just one gift in the midst of their sad struggle it is the ability to relate what they are going through to those who luckily do not know what is like, and to touch those who sadly do.

Circumstance can change perceptions of an artist. In 2006, Bailey Rae seemed to all the world a trouble-free, down-to-earth soul sister who made mellifluously pleasing music, avoiding the tortured high-jinks of the likes of Amy Winehouse. If the latter is commended for her dues-paid grittily real diva qualities, then Bailey Rae has now sidled up alongside her for very different reasons. From the opening chords of ’Are You Here’ there is something very different about this recording from her debut. A heart plucking wistful progression and a lyric sick with meaning, it’s complete with rough edges that under different circumstances might have been ironed out. If at times the old Bailey Rae didn’t sound as if she was really having to try too hard, the dynamics of being tried to the limit have removed the most lounge-like qualities from her vocal delivery. “He’s a real live wire,” she sings. It’s not too hard to guess whom she is talking about.

The permanent down-turned mouth of ‘Put Your Records On’ – more a product of effortlessness rather than sorrow – is replaced by a heartfelt reminiscence on first single ‘I’d Do It All Again’ with its odd discordant tone cranking up the emotion and sense of unease. Her heart is an open door she opines, the love she felt bigger than the pain she now feels. The beautifully soaring chorus pulls on the heartstrings but never resolves itself, reflecting the paradoxical risk of allowing yourself to feel more whole in the arms of another knowing that loss is an ever-present threat. There is a real fragility about Bailey Rae that can be heard throughout, but it’s a fragility borne not of innate mental torture, more the pain and risk of being human. You still sense she’s pretty rooted.

The genus and development of The Sea, has a before and after narrative. The project was paused while she took time to grieve, what was originally conceived as an upbeat, more carefree piece of work being thrown radically back in on itself. ‘Paris Nights / London Mornings’ is join-the-dots café jazz, harmlessly distracting for a moment or too and sounding so much like an outtake from her debut that you wonder if it was conceived before tragedy struck. The whole album might have been similar under different circumstances. Elsewhere, the bluesy honesty of ‘The Blackest Lily’, where days collide into one another and are no longer easily named, is wrapped in a workaday rock treatment and almost slurred delivery, while ‘Paper Dolls’ is full of ’60s echoes and rocky swagger but seems oddly insubstantial alongside some of the more capacious moments on the album.

‘Closer’ makes a case for Bailey Rae as Sade’s heiress, slick pop-soul with polished production and a flawless vocal. It probably has mass shop window appeal but it’s not where the real interest lies. The real gem is saved until last, the closing title track conjuring images of lonely souls kissing paradise goodbye as they stand at a shoreline wishing their life away. It’s an end-of-the-evening song, the reluctant closing of a chapter but with a determination to continue. Similarly, there doesn’t seem to be too much in the way of easy closure in the album as a whole. An insurgent heart effuses itself to the point of extinction then draws back – an odd and unlikely observation to make about someone who was once nicknamed ‘Boring Rae’.

Yet if past characterisation of her as a bland, unchallenging, production line vocalist meant for easy mass consumption was unfair, then a reworked one that claims her as the voice of the reborn through adversity is wrong also. The Sea is certainly a progression from her debut but not a radical departure. There’s no attempt at business as usual, but equally there is little indication that she’d ever willingly pour her heart out entirely. What we get instead is the sound of a gifted vocalist becoming a slowly more interesting talent, revealing moments of real emotive beauty where you feel the gut wrench that drove them into life. The Sea is a touching, if not flawless, album. It breaks your heart a little to be party to it.

Martyn Clayton
UK release date: 01/02/10; www.myspace.com/corinnebaileyrae


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