Corinne Bailey Rae hit the heights with her 2006 self-titled debut, achieving a UK No 1 and a Billboard Top 5, before going on to sell over four million copies worldwide. Her second offering, The Sea, seems a distance apart from the light and airy feel of her earlier work. Between then and now, the singer has had to cope with a huge personal tragedy in the form of the death of her jazz-saxophonist husband, Jason. While some of the songs on the new record pre-date her awful bereavement, The Sea brings with it much greater gravitas all round.
The singer’s original success came on the back of a sweetly effervescent pop personality stylishly delivering great tunes. She was hardly the typical pop princess, though, nor the wasted wannabe. Rather her fresh and accessible jazz-soul style had genuine mainstream appeal, across the ages. You took her for what she was and were glad of it. Now those trademark soft girly ringlets have been usurped by a spiralling afro, giving her an assured, mature look in tune with her growth in age and experience.
The Sea is a big step forward artistically. The music is richer, more intense, the moods more introspective and reflective. Her husband, Jason Rae, clearly had a telling impact on Corinne Bailey Rae’s development as a singer and songwriter. The couple met at a jazz club in Leeds, England and married in 2001 when Rae was just 22. Her husband’s own passion for music and encouragement spurred on Bailey Rae to evolve as a performer herself. His death in March 2008, after an accidental overdose of alcohol and methadone, came when the new album was about half done. For all that, the finished article is as seamless as it is imbued with her sense of real loss. And that is no mean achievement.
“Are You Here” opens the record in a deceptively soft manner yet it develops into an intense reflection on the singer’s loss during which vocal clarity comes and goes in a wholly natural outpouring of emotion. The elemental ebb and flow of the song makes it a real stand-out. Through it Bailey Rae shows admirable strength and determination of will, and not least musical variation a world apart from her debut work. “I’d Do It All Again” is the new single, showcasing a mellower, soulful and more familiar Corinne Bailey Rae. The song was actually written in the wake of a big argument with her husband two months before he died, and its inclusion shows the artiste’s determination to keep everything honest and unsentimental. The song closes with the prophetic line, “You’re searching for something I know won’t make you happy”.
“Feels Like The First Time” brings more reflections on loss, using the analogy that “you went away,” but leaving a true feeling of the singer being “emotionally scarred”. Like all the songs here, the musicianship is first rate and the big band treatment carries the song particularly well. Feelings of disorientation begin “The Blackest Lily” as Bailey Rae tries to rationalise her feelings. Musically the song combines a lounge feel with soulful keyboards and Harrison-esque guitar. Interesting. “Closer” finds the artiste in more of a classic R&B mode, though the sentiments are bleak. It’s accomplished stuff but not necessarily as strong as the earlier songs. The dreamy “Love’s On Its Way” by contrast is an achingly beautiful ballad, sung with feeling and played with meaning.
“I Would Like To Call It Beauty” has echoes of Jeff Buckley as Bailey Rae ponders the nature of grief amid acoustic, jazzy backing, over which her voice glides, floats and swoops. It’s a stunning song that will grow and work its magic on you. “Paris Nights/New York Mornings” provides something of an up tempo and lyrical diversion, but arguably a more disposable one in the context of the rest of the album. “Paper Dolls” is rockier, at times recalling The Cure, especially in the pacy chorus, and showing yet another side to Baileys Rae’s writing and vocal delivery. From a dream-like opening, “Diving For Hearts” develops into a real power ballad, punctuated with faraway verses in which Bailey Rae’s vocal control is at times on the very edge.
The Sea ends with the elegiac title track, a magnificent closer again dealing with the subject of loss. This particular song though is based on a family story that had been passed down to her about her grandfather’s death in a boating accident as her aunt watched helplessly from the shore. One of the first to be written for the album, and so pre-dating the loss of her husband, the song plaintively explores grief and powerlessness in the face of cruel fate. “The sea, the majestic sea, breaks everything, cleans everything, crushes everything, takes everything from me.”
The Sea was co-produced by Bailey Rae with Steve Brown, and Steve Chrisanthou, who produced many of the songs on her first record. It’s an album of real depth that crosses boundaries with mostly outstanding songs, all of which are lovingly crafted. It’s an enchanting, mature collection, which ebbs and flows through loss of love and memories of happiness, both a reflection of Bailey Rae’s emotional turmoil as well as a celebration and an acceptance that the show goes on. Highly recommended.