The sea, according to English songstress Corinne Bailey Rae, is a brooding and melancholy place. Rae’s solitary journey into the open ocean on her new release The Sea comes two years after her husband’s fatal methadone and alcohol overdose. This backstory is essential to the album, which represents a departure from the cheery innocence of Rae’s self-titled debut.
Corinne Bailey Rae
“He’s a real live wire,” Rae says of her late husband in the first line of The Sea. The opening is a little creepy and dark, but Rae’s intimate voice immediately wraps the listener in. Murmured memories of her husband’s eyes and the taste of summer build toward the plaintive cry of the track’s titular line “Are you here” — there’s no question mark. We already know the answer.
As is typical of Corinne Bailey Rae, the song feels like a glimpse into a very private and personal moment. Listening to “Are You Here,” the subsequent rumination “I’d Do It All Again” and many of the other songs on The Sea is like overhearing Rae’s real-time attempt to come to terms with her husband’s untimely death. But instead of watching from a distance, we feel the pain and confusion alongside her.
Rae is neither a Beyoncé-fabulous R&B diva nor a drama-crazy pop star. Though most of the songs on The Sea are poppy in structure, Rae has the delicate touch of an indie singer-songwriter, baring her soul in a classy and relatable way. Her pitch-perfect voice can carry itself with minimal instrumentation, as she proves on harmonically simple tracks like “Love’s On Its Way.” Anchored by a light guitar-and-percussion backing, Rae spreads her voice thin for an angelic effect in the gracefully ascending chorus, only to slip back into a thick, mournfully tuneful texture in the verses.
Though all its tracks are tenderly nostalgic, not everything on The Sea is mired in tragedy. “Paris Nights/New York Mornings” fondly recalls carefree days in love. The song is reminiscent of some of the peppier songs on her first album, but the images are more mature — “I can see the lights from the restaurant / I couldn’t quite perfect that nonchalance / Paris and champagne like warm brown sugar cubes.” Corinne Bailey Rae recalled summer youth and first love, while The Sea seems to come several lifetimes later. It’s like the calm after the storm of grown-up calamity.
Often dark and heavy, The Sea might throw off fans looking for lighthearted fun. The deep, low opening and urgently fluttering piano chords of “Feels Like The First Time” reveal a restless poignancy, and the song ends without any melodic or lyrical closure. “Paper Dolls” has a similarly pressing, urgent feel. Heavy keyboard harmonies and a solid drumbeat underscore a story of a girl realizing her own potential too late to change.
There’s no “Put Your Records On” here — Rae’s 2006 radio hit about self-love, “sapphire and faded dreams.” But The Sea is a satisfying release from — and for — an artist sure to stay on the musical radar for a long time. It’s a sad story, but one that makes for stirring art. And by the end of the delicately building album closer, it’s clear that Corinne Bailey Rae has come to peace with “the majestic sea (that) breaks everything, crushes everything, cleans everything, takes everything from me.”