Album Reviews

The Coral – Sea Of Mirrors / Holy Joe’s Coral Island Medicine Show

(Run On) UK release date: 8 September 2023

Mining a rich seam of creativity, these memorable pop songs tell stories in ways that leave their listeners continually captivated

The Coral - Sea Of Mirrors There is something immensely reassuring about the way The Coral approach their music. Mining a rich stream of creativity, the band have made two double albums in the space of two years, following the success of Coral Island. In many ways this work is a narrative sequel, though the two halves are more distinctly crafted. Sea Of Mirrors is available on all formats, while Holy Joe’s Coral Island Medicine Show is – for now at least – confined to physical media only.

Sea Of Mirrors has as its theme an imaginary Italian western, the group proclaiming that its music brings in the production values of Lee Hazlewood, the vocal delivery of Gene Pitney and the songwriting of Townes Van Zandt. Yet even with those cosmopolitan influences this could only be a record by an English band. That much is clear just a few beats into Cycles Of The Seasons, where that familiar Coral shuffle makes itself known, ambling airily down the street with a tinge of autumnal nostalgia around the edges of the picture. The music also exists in a dream-like state, the hazy psychedelia and multi-part harmonies creating an audio mist. Faraway Worlds is a prime example of this, with its old piano, ghostly vocals and sepia tinged production creating visions of another place at another time.

James Skelly’s songwriting continues to be an instinctive pleasure. He writes such evocative songs in Wild Bird, Dream River and Oceans Apart, with a cameo from Cillian Murphy. They tell their stories in full colour with intricate detail, but do so in a deceptively simple, singable musical language. It’s a talent Skelly and the band have always had, sitting in a line of illustrious Liverpudlians, but with each album their craft acquires extra layers and dimensions. Complementing the band’s word painting this time around are the string arrangements of Sean O’Hagan, with exquisitely shaded bedding both for the title track and Dream River among others.

As always the band are musically watertight, each of their contributions fully inside the music, and despite the recorded origins the listener always feels The Coral are with them in the same room. Holy Joe’s Coral Island Medicine Show is the companion album, a bridge back from Sea Of Mirrors to Coral Island itself. It starts by way of a narration from The Great Moriarty, granddad of the Skelly brothers. He sets the scene for a radio show keeping the night shift company, a fertile ground for more musical stories. This time many of them have a travelling bent, “leaving Dublin behind and setting sail for Liverpool tonight” (The Sinner) or telling of a protagonist whose time it is to say goodbye (The Road Is Calling). Here an elegiac air descends over the music, as it does in the rather lovely Long Drive To The City, dressed with slide guitar.

Johnny Cash exerts a lyrical influence here, with Baby Face Nelson and The Coral Island Killer bringing the album towards a relatively grisly close. There are masculine asides, too, such as John Simm’s evocative narration to Drifter’s Prayer recalling how “From as far back as I can remember I’ve been a drifter”. Of course their music is heavily in thrall to the 1960s, but they wear their influences with an easy-fitting indifference, like a comfortable jacket.

This high quality double release reveals that very little has changed in The Coral’s world. Yet that is in every way a good thing, for it means they are continuing to hone their craft, writing ever more memorable pop songs, and telling stories in ways that leave their listeners continually captivated.

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More on The Coral
The Coral – Sea Of Mirrors / Holy Joe’s Coral Island Medicine Show
The Coral – Coral Island
The Coral – Move Through The Dawn
The Coral @ Forum, London
The Coral – Distance Inbetween