By Daniel Garrett
Corinne Bailey Rae, The Sea
Produced by Steve Brown and Corinne Bailey Rae
“This album, like everything I do, is made to try and impress Jason Bruce Rae.”
—Corinne Bailey Rae
Many of us hope for profundity, but, though it can, profundity rarely comes to us as we walk in the bright sunshine, happy, and rich, enjoying the company of family and friends; rather, profundity is more likely to overwhelm us as we try to face and survive disappointment, failure, death, or catastrophe. Then, we are surprised to find that profundity is both too much and not enough: our spirits are hardly strong enough to bear what we have learned, and what we have learned does not give our lives the beauty, meaning, or order we want. I think of that while listening to the music of Corinne Bailey Rae’s album The Sea. Corinne Bailey Rae survived the sudden death of her husband, and The Sea sometimes has an eerie silence, a great stillness, and that silence and stillness seem more than a pause for effect—they seem like fragments in consciousness, moments of forgetting and memory, a lack of certainty, rooted in doubt and possibility. What is to come next? What can bridge the past and present, sorrow and joy? It is amazing then that much of Corinne Bailey Rae’s The Sea is filled with personality, thought, lyricism, and sounds of invention.
I had not known or remembered how talented Corinne Bailey Rae is; more than a unique singer—her voice can seemed to be held in the air, suspended by contemplation, savoring mood and sense—she plays several instruments, including piano and guitar (and glockenspiel, glass organ, autoharp). The first song on The Sea does not seem to end the silence that preceded it, but to extend that silence and then to slowly give it details, with Bailey Rae’s delicate voice and her piano and guitar. She describes a lively man—full of energy, handsome, stylish—in the present tense, and it sounds like infatuation, something new, but it turns out to be a memory, the kind of confusion of past and present that can immerse the grieving. “Are you here? Are you here?—‘cause my heart recalls that. It all seems the same. It all feels the same.”
In “I’d Do It All Again,” which I think Bailey Rae said she wrote after an argument with her husband (before he died), she acknowledges the difficulties of love, seeing and accepting her lover’s search for things she does not believe will make him happy, and renews her own commitment: “Someone to love is bigger than your pride’s worth. It’s bigger than the pain you got, for all it hurts. It outruns all of the sadness. It’s terrifying light to the darkness.” It is impressive that the singer-writer knew these things before the worst came to her and she could say then, “I’d do it all again.”
There’s the excitement and pleasure of a deepening love, which may be new or just discovering new depths—“we talk, talk, talk on the telephone, we laugh, laugh, laugh at the things we know”—in “Feels Like the First Time,” a song with a strong rhythm, including Spanish guitar, congas, and the chanting recitation of certain lines. (The song was partly written by Steve Brown, with Bailey Rae; and she plays Spanish guitar, Kenny Higgins plays electric guitar, and Sam Bell plays congas.) The suggestion of a deeper love instead of a new love can be found in the lyrical references to rediscovery and emotional scars and being “a soldier for much too long,” the kind of things—pain, distrust—that can give even long relationships the danger of a bond freshly formed. However, in “The Blackest Lily,” the narrator states, “I was afraid of nothing when you called me on the telephone,” and it is a song with a strong, fast groove that is matched by emotion. On “The Blackest Lily,” James Poyser plays organ, Adam Blackstone plays bass, Mike Feingold electric guitar, and Ahmir Thompson drums and tambourine, among other musicians. “Colour my heart, make it restart,” Bailey Rae sings in “The Blackest Lily”; and in the song she subsequently (and charmingly) admits, “You were unnervingly delicate, and I had a weakness for etiquette.” The song’s rising intensity is like an exorcism. Even better is the flirtatiously assertive, slyly soulful song “Closer” (I imagine both Marvin Gaye and Al Green would recognize this kind of eroticism).
Corinne Bailey Rae combines both prayer and protest in “Love’s on Its Way,” on which she plays autoharp, glass organ, and guitar; and there are also musicians on cello and viola and violin. It is in the composition “I Would Like to Call it Beauty” when I think of how soft and slow Bailey Rae’s voice can be, and recall Billie Holiday, whose influence could be heard blatantly on Abbey Lincoln on that singer’s Abbey is Blue and on other Lincoln recordings, and subtly on Diana Ross, following Ross’s work on a Holiday film biography, on Ross’s albums Touch Me in the Morning and Last Time I Saw Him; and there has been more recent Holiday influence on Erykah Badu and Corinne Bailey Rae. (Many singers, including the inadequately appreciated Miki Howard and Dee Dee Bridgewater, have recorded albums in explicit tribute to Holiday, without sounding at all like Holiday, but it is interesting to hear those who take something of Holiday’s tone and pace and apply them to different kinds of material, giving that material something potent and strange.) Like Holiday, Bailey Rae can sound modern while not always sounding contemporary—she sounds freed from today’s attitudes and slang. It sounds funny to say, but people can be afraid of women singers: some of these women are sorcerers, summoning a power that is mysterious and seductive, drawn on spirit and body and will, resounding with desire and anger and pain and something unnamable. Such women invoke an ageless authority no man has given them. Bailey Rae may yet become one of these wondrous women (the evidence being that she is probing mysteries on her album The Sea). In “I Would Like to Call it Beauty,” a song co-written by Philip Rae, Corinne Bailey Rae sings, “So young for death, we walk in shoes too big, but you play it like a poet, like you always did. And I lay face upturned on the palm of God, pushed on by the fingertips of dreams.” Bailey Rae’s voice hangs in the air, as did that of Billie Holiday—arrested by a perception or thought, both self-confident and vulnerable, and arresting the listener’s attention. Bailey Rae finds a language—oddly poetic—to address someone and something special. The sweetness and sorrow of love and life are hers, and ours: “we danced into tomorrow on bleeding feet.” The shock of those words brings the experience nearer, makes it seem new. What does Corinne Bailey Rae conclude? “I would like to call it beauty. Strained as love’s become, it still amazes me.”
There is discovery in Corinne Bailey Rae’s voice in “Paris Nights/New York Mornings,” and she sounds happily bohemian, sweetly romantic; and it is nice to have a new song celebrating two of the world’s great cities and the personal delight they hold for the curious and the loving. With the song’s last words, the experience the song delineates seems to become a memory (“You change and you grow, but we were young. We were young and we didn’t know”); and the next song seems a memory too. The treachery of certain friendships—full of confession and intimidation—is described in “Paper Dolls,” in which there is a troubled tone, despite the quick rhythm; and the song sketches how one person’s insecurity is transformed into the intention to master others.
With references to the ocean and its bright cold calm in the song “Diving for Hearts,” co-written by Jennifer Birch (and for which Bailey Rae is joined by the Leeds University liturgical choir), silence becomes merely quiet soul music and that develops momentum until it erupts in crescendo; and it is a song of longing, change, and renewal, of self and selflessness; and there is what may be the sublime, as it seems to me: “Worlds will all end, and new worlds will begin. It’s a thought so stark. We’re at once determinant, yet so insignificant, spinning out in the velvet dark.” Unlike many, the woman and artist Corrine Bailey Rae seems to have faced the abyss and survived, without corruption, hatred, or madness; able to find redemption for her own spirit and that of others. Corinne Bailey Rae has said that the last composition on The Sea was inspired by a long-ago family accident, one that had tremendous impact, and here in that pretty song that gives the album its title, “The Sea,” the pain, blame, shame, and resilience that the accident encompassed are named, and a certain ambiguity and complexity are accepted.
Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, Hyphen, Identity Theory, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today, as well as The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett, who from 2006 through 2009 wrote about 150 music reviews, has said, ”There are a lot of musicians worth writing about, including Erykah Badu, Camera Obscura, Nat King Cole, Danny Ellis, Roberta Flack, Givers, Angelique Kidjo, Mars Volta, Curtis Mayfield, Van Morrison, Peter Mulvey, Josh Ritter, Diana Ross, Rotary Downs, Jill Scott, Spoon, Angie Stone, Vampire Weekend, and Cedric Watson with Bijou Creole; and it is wonderful to listen to someone such as Corinne Bailey Rae, whose work has a surprising freshness and a depth rooted in her own charming personality and challenging experience.”