Since his 2010 debut album, Blind Alley, singer Sugaray Rayford has been exploring the musical intersection where blues, soul, and gospel meet. Rayford’s life in music began long before that, as he began singing in church as a seven-year-old growing up in Texas. Rayford’s new album, In Too Deep, does indeed have deep roots in late 20th century blues, soul, gospel, and funk. Lyrically though, hints of the 21st century frequently bubble up through the music.
In Too Deep is a close collaboration between Rayford and producer/songwriter Eric Corne, who also produced Rayford’s 2020 album, Somebody Save Me. Corne is credited as the sole songwriter for most of the songs. Rayford and Corne co-wrote the album’s title track, as well as its closer, “United We Stand”. While the lyrics to most of the songs may be Corne’s, Rayford powerfully puts the words across as if they were his own.
In Too Deep immediately establishes itself with its opening track, the horn-and-organ-fueled “Invisible Soldier”, a sympathetic portrayal of a veteran who has PTSD. The title track continues the intensity, as the song’s narrator describes his attempts to climb out of the emotional/financial hole in which they’re mired.
“Miss Information” is the most topical song on the album, with Rayford commenting on life in the 2020s, with lyrics that are not overly specific but that flow a bit like those of the Temptations’ classic “Ball of Confusion”. Rayford doesn’t name names or make specific references to social media platforms or pandemics, but he does suggest that “love is the answer / She don’t have no master / Just add in some laughter”, and that we need to “change or go backwards”.
Sugaray Rayford isn’t necessarily breaking new ground on In Too Deep. While most of the album relies on tried-and-true musical styles, Rayford isn’t afraid of a little musical experimentation. That’s most evident on “Please Take My Hand”, an anthemic plea for social justice built exclusively from handclaps, percussion, and eerie backing vocals. While “Invisible Solider”, “In Too Deep”, “Please Take My Hand”, and “Miss Information” are clearly made to make you think, Rayford is intent to inspire as well. “One” rides a Memphis Hi Records groove to plea that “one world is all we need”, though there it does feature the ominous thought, “what if Mother Nature took a stand and the whole world shut down?”
Rayford balances his topical songs with two appealing love songs, “No Limit to My Love” and “Golden Lady of the Canyon”. Both are sung beautifully, no-nonsense tributes to the redeeming power of romantic love. Rayford returns to his early gospel experience with “Gonna Lift You Up” and “United We Stand”, both found near the end of In Too Deep. Given the world we’re living in – the one Rayford obliquely describes on other album tracks – it might seem hopelessly idealistic to suggest that we can be lifted up or stand united. Rayford pulls this off though, asking in the album’s final minute, “Did you have a good time?” More than likely, you’ll be answering yes.