Album review: Corinne Bailey Rae's 'The Sea'
The singer-songwriter reaches into the depth of her grief and delivers a moving, if not seminal, album.
Anyone who's been through a serious loss knows about the baffling part: After it's over, you are still you. You are you, plus the loss, plus the pain and confusion the loss causes. The process of healing isn't really a matter of "getting over it" -- taking it in is what's necessary, incorporating what's been felt and learned and figuring out how to be the person you've always been is what's different now.
"The Sea," Corinne Bailey Rae's sometimes hard to absorb but ultimately deeply rewarding second album, is about that process. Rae's husband, saxophonist Jason Rae, accidentally overdosed on methadone and alcohol in March 2008. Rae grieved for him by doing nothing for months, then returned to making music.
Though she's known for the kind of delicacy that's often dismissed as "lite" -- her 2006 self-titled debut was a careful exploration of the feminine psyche set within arrangements that melded Laurel Canyon folk with early-1970s boho soul -- Rae searches for the pinpricks and love sighs that intensify gentle emotions. On "The Sea," her carefulness complicates what might have been a blunt expression of pain.
The album begins with one of Rae's patented carefully plucked guitar chords and the line, "He's a real live wire." What a way to invoke a ghost. That first song, "Are You Here," captures the way that a dreaming mind can create its own happiness and how returning to reality is a landing with a thud. It's one of several songs that move in a circular fashion, like waves, like irresolvable emotion.
Several songs, including "Love's on Its Way" and "Diving for Hearts," unfold less neatly. They resist hooks and no one will dance to them. Tapping into elements of soul, jazz and even heavy rock, Rae stubbornly shapes these songs to conform to her wandering, insistent thoughts. They don't sound like what we're used to in pop right now; they're more like the mid-period work of Van Morrison and Nona Hendryx's songs for Labelle. Those artists formed their musical approaches within the soul idiom but demanded the freedom of voice and the chance to stretch in strange ways that rarely makes for hit singles.
Although Rae is famous for the more marketable charm of bouncy singles like the Grammy-nominated "Put Your Records On," she told interviewers that she hoped her next work would be more akin to the avant-pop of critical darling Joanna Newsom. It's cruel to say that her personal calamity might have bought her the chance to take that risk, but it does seem possible.
"The Sea" isn't a perfect album. The catchiest song, "Paris Nights / New York Mornings," sounds like an outtake from Rae's debut. "Paper Dolls" seems similarly out of place -- it's a rocker invoking Rae's post-punk youth that distracts from the thornier, more expansive songs around it.
Repeated listens might help integrate those sonic sore thumbs into the overall mood of "The Sea." Even without such closure, though, "The Sea" is a remarkable accomplishment. It's a step toward something -- Rae's inner peace, and her next artistic breakthrough -- that has its own considerable rewards.
Corinne Bailey Rae
Four stars (Out of four)
Photo credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times