It is difficult to remain objective when reviewing any piece of art directly informed by a very public death. In the case of Leeds songbird Corinne Bailey Rae’s second record, The Sea, it can be difficult to separate the obvious hike in quality from the tragic death of her husband Jason Rae in 2007.
Taken on face value, Bailey Rae has made a huge jump up musically from her poppy RnB roots. The Sea is a dense, lush and muti-faceted record, with Rae’s melodic sensibilities mixing with much darker jazz and rock influences, and her carefree spirit tempered with a much more meditative approach. But, as an audience knowing what lies behind the musical change in direction, it lends The Sea a much more profound air, pushing it up towards skirting around becoming, if you’ll excuse the hijacking of Dave Egger’s title, a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.
Opener Are You Here is a perfect case in point. A quiet, alt-rock strum that could have been a simple love song in anyone else’s canon acts as a punch in the gut for the listener. As she sings “He’s a real live-wire… Wait till you see those eyes”, it’s both heartbreaking and celebratory – tones that the record shifts effortlessly between over its 12 songs. As the strings and the voice begin to soar, and the loss becomes more apparent, it’s clear that today’s Corinne is light years ahead of her 2006 incarnation. Lead and ‘comeback’ single I’d Do it All Again drives the point home, a smoky heartbreak song, complete with soaring strings and gospel backing vocals as she sings “You’re searching for something I know won’t make you happy/ You did it again/ You broke another skin”.
Oddly, this album primer is one of the album’s weaker songs, slower and more overwrought than the subtler majority of the record. You can see what’s being attempted – it’s the one that says ‘new Amy Winehouse‘ more than any other – but there are better expressions of her talent in almost every other song. Even Closer, a pretty throwaway saccharine soul number, gives her the chance to cut loose while Love’s On It’s Way sees her channeling Jeff Buckley’s haunting vocal dramatics over a funereal guitar line. On an album of few missteps, this is the most glaring.
The commercial nous of Put Your Records On is still here – the breezy Paris Nights/ New York Mornings, complete with funk guitars and breathy “Oo-Hoos” is a laser-guided precision pop hit, and could and should become as big a hit as Like A Star. Similarly Paper Dolls is a rocky, Hammond-organ driven middle finger to an unknown svengali figure – “Who are you to disappoint them/ Time will you get you in the end” – which packs something of a punch. Make no mistake; while the advance press has focused on her ‘darker’ second record, this is still a commercial album that will appeal to the four million owners of her debut as much as chin-stroking jazz musos.
Whether she’s consciously referencing John Banville’s Booker-winning novel of the same title in naming her record, which deals with someone coming to terms with the death of a loved one, is unclear. Even if not, the metaphor of being washed clean by the ocean appears more than once. On Diving For Heart she talks of “These underwater feelings/ Abandoned/ Fires my heart/ Should I keep on diving till my heart is found?” while the eponymous last track talks of a majestic sea, crushing, cleaning and taking everything from her.
This song stands as the most redemptive song on the record, a heartbreaking, literal goodbye to her husband and a reflective, hopeful look to the future, neatly summing up all of The Sea’s strongest suits. Corinne Bailey Rae has completed a remarkable comeback, against titanic odds, and for that she should be applauded. But to do it with a record as powerful as this is extraordinary.