It’s been a long while since we’ve heard from Corinne Bailey Rae – almost six years, to be precise. Her last album, The Sea, was a grief-stricken mediation on the death of her husband, and was an extraordinarily powerful, if inevitably uncomfortable, listen. It was a long way from the carefree young woman of a decade ago, and left us wondering what direction she’d take in future.
Perhaps understandably, given what she’s gone through, she decided to take another hiatus, and has eventually emerged with The Heart Speaks In Whispers, which provides a nice bridge between her two previous albums. There’s a new sense of optimism shining through the songs, especially on tracks like Hey I Won’t Break Your Heart and Tell Me, but it’s always tempered by a wistfulness that only experience can bring.
There’s all sorts of sides to Bailey Rae on display on The Heart Speaks In Whispers – the pop queen on the opening, urgent The Skies Will Break, the languid R’n’B funkster on Green Aphrodisiac and the fragile balladeer on the beautiful Hey I Won’t Break Your Heart. It’s a smooth, radio-friendly sound, one that’s been honed by Bailey Rae immersing herself in the LA scene frequented by many of Kendrick Lamar‘s collaborators – the presence of Moses Sumney on one of the album’s standout tracks, Caramel, and a couple of members of LA trio KING throughout the album is indicative of the sort of quality that she’s surrounded herself with.
And of course there’s Bailey Rae’s voice, which sounds as wonderful as ever. She’s at her best on the more stripped-back tracks where she can really shine: on the laid-back, soulful Do You Ever Think Of Me, her voice almost soars when paired with a gentle acoustic guitar and plaintive piano, while Hey I Won’t Break Your Heart pulls off a similar trick. Yet she sounds equally good on the slinky Horse Print Dress, while she imbues the gorgeous closing track Night with the spirit of the likes of Billie Holiday or Amy Winehouse.
It’s the unexpected little touches throughout that make this Bailey Rae’s most consistent and rounded record to date: the coda of horns that round off Been To The Moon, the slight restraint on The Skies Will Break which always makes you think the song’s about to explode in a Calvin Harris-style aural explosion but never does, or even the sudden but pleasing nod to dancehall in Tell Me. Now and again, it threatens to become a bit too formulaic, as on Stop Where We Are, but Bailey Rae’s voice and the sheer excellence of her band stop it all from becoming too bland.
If anything sums up the album, it’s Walk On, which is impossible to listen to without thinking of Bailey Rae’s past troubles: “there will be a light that shines in the darkness, keep moving on” – a gently optimistic paean to surviving when times seem to get too tough. Like much of this album, it revels in that sense of catharsis, that calm after the storm. Hopefully it won’t be another six years until we hear from Corinne Bailey Rae again, but if it is, it’ll no doubt be worth the wait.