At the end of the liner notes to this engaging album, singer-songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae writes, “This album, like everything I do, is made to try and impress Jason Bruce Rae”. Jason is, as is now well known, her husband, who died from a drug overdose in 2008 and whose death explains the delayed followup to Rae’s 2006 self-titled debut. That album was a smash in her native UK and in the States, with Grammy nods, millions sold, and four hit singles, including the sunny, inescapable “Put Your Records On”. Instead of jumping right into the expected speedy, momentum-seizing sophomore album, Rae found her life and career derailed by her husband’s death. During this period Rae did “nothing”, as she puts it. Eventually she found her way back into her art with the recording of The Sea, a record that deals with Jason’s death by looking both backward and forward, becoming at turns mournful and resolved.
Rae’s music has evolved and deepened since her debut, an album that was lauded as a neo-soul record of refreshing ’70s-style grooves with live instrumentation, a welcome move away from the often crass and inorganic R&B that has tended to dominate the pop landscape over the last decade and a half. The Sea is a richer effort than her debut. Given its inspiration, it forges a darker and more sophisticated sonic palette. The Sea often captures the debut’s languorous delivery, yet the adult-contemporary coffee-house vibe has given way to deeper grooves, sonorous landscapes, and contemplative, poetic imagery.
The record opens with Rae’s simple guitar line and whispered vocals, sounding more like something from Exile in Guyville than any modern soul album. “Are You Here” quickly establishes both the album’s languid tone and the mournful meditations in the songs. “He’s a real live wire / He’s the best of his kind / Wait till you see those eyes”, she sings in the present tense, setting up the upheaval and perplexity of the song’s hook: “Are you here? / ‘Cause my heart recalls that it all seems the same”. The song builds with skittering drums and cymbal crashes that rain over swirling, ethereal backing vocals which, with the lyrics, suggest a dream that indistinguishably interposes the fog of memory and the starkness of reality.
The lead single, “I’d Do It All Again”, follows the first song’s controlling structure of a peaceful opening, this time with fingerpicked acoustic guitar and hushed vocals. Then it builds into a cascade of drums, organ, and vocal backdrops, while Rae herself delivers one her strongest vocal performances. She starts with understated lines (“Someone to love is bigger than your pride’s worth”), building to a wrenching crescendo on the title refrain, a ‘70s ballad melody and arrangement, beautiful in its austerity, moving in its soaring climax.
Elsewhere, Rae favors a traditional, organic vibe while incorporating thoroughly modern–sounding musical backdrops, especially on the RZA-style beat of “Feels Like the First Time”, with menacing piano plinks over the supremely funky drumming of Luke Flowers. This song about losing love and finding it again was one of a few on the record that was in the works before Jason’s death, yet it’s almost impossible not to reinterpret any lyric on the album accordingly: “Feels just like the first time when you kiss me, my lover / Angels in the sky will descend on our love”.
The album’s hardest-hitting track is “The Blackest Lily”, bolstered by the drumming of the Roots’ “?uestlove” Thompson. It’s not only the song most directly about the loss — from an awful telephone call to a stalled, broken life — it also packs the biggest sonic wallop of these songs. Throughout The Sea, Rae showcases a knack for direct honesty, in matters of the heart (“I’m tired of the pull and push / I’m tired of the making up / Don’t you feel that you’ve had enough?” from “Closer”) as well as matters of the street (“There’s so much blood on the streets / So much hope refused / So much grainy teenage photographs on the evening news” from the cautiously optimistic “Love’s on the Way”). And just as the ascetic lyricism on The Sea marks another artistic leap forward for Rae, her singing maintains a refreshingly laidback delivery. Perhaps it’s her British restraint, but it’s a welcome contrast to the last two decades of absurd melismatic overkill on pop radio.
One of the album’s niftiest tracks is “Paris Nights/New York Mornings”, which blends a Brill Building melody, nostalgic lyrics, and wistful indie-pop flourishes. But the record comes back around to its central theme with two subdued songs, both featuring nautical motifs. On the mesmeric “Diving for Hearts”, she remembers, “I longed for you like the lovesick moon pulls the tide” as she explores a journey to the depths of the soul, a place beyond words where she sheds her skin and finds solace among all the inscrutability. The album ends with the lovely title song, with its plaintive refrain of “Goodbye, Paradise”, singing in her gentlest voice that the sea “breaks… cleans… takes everything from me”. It’s a fitting summation on an album of sultry grooves and deep emotion, on which Rae finds a kind of peace — if only in beautifully embracing her art again, amid loss and mystery.