On her brooding, deeply felt new song, “The Sea,” the title track of her sophomore record (Capitol) out on Tuesday, Corinne Bailey Rae sings “the sea breaks everything/crushes everything/cleans everything/takes everything away from me.”
Of course, given what we’ve seen over the past decade from natural calamities ranging from Katrina to tsunamis to earthquakes in China and now in Haiti, this refrain could be speaking about those uncontrollable forces we often must withstand in order to survive in an often unforgiveable world.
For Bailey Rae, it obviously has a more specific, if also metaphorical, meaning. The singer/songwriter, who hit it big with her self-titled debut in 1996, lost her husband Jason Rae to an accidental overdose in 2008.
No doubt, the pain and darkness she endured has colored this new CD. Gone is the popcorn pop R&B that helped launch her and it’s replaced with a more expansive, often digressive kind of songcraft shaded by introspection, yearning and a distinct sense of loss. Life is short, things get left behind or never come to fruition—these are certainly not the themes you heard on her debut, which spawned the fizzy, winning single, “Put Your Records On.”
The slight soul laced with hooks and an ear toward the radio has given way to Bailey Rae’s bluesier and rock musical sides and they offer her more room to breathe even if the subject matter is often reflected through a glass darkly.
The new set opens with the elegiac, “Are You Here,” a stark ode to her late husband and it immediately announces that Bailey Rae is going to sculpt a very different sound than she did previously. A few of the tracks here reflect the singer’s live shows, which are more eclectic and rock oriented than anyone would expect from her recorded work prior to this.
The 30-year-old British artist often performs Led Zeppelin’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You” and songs like “Diving for Hearts,” (with its deeper bottom and thicker guitar) and the funky “The Blackest Lily,” show the deepening of her approach and added dimensions.
Bailey Rae has never been the most commanding, full bodied singer and here her fragile vocals work in her favor and really serve some of the songs. “I Would Like to Call It Beauty” is wonderfully tender and delicate but emotionally strong. “I’d Do It Again” is a spare, quietly reflective meditation on regret and desire.
Certainly, there are songs here that are reminiscent of her previous work including the obvious single, “Closer,” and “the swirling, cosmopolitan ”Paris Nights/New York Mornings” with its catchy chorus and swirl of strings and delightful cooing harmonies. “Paper Dolls” rocks about as hard as Bailey Rae has gotten on disc and reflects the kind of songwriting from her early days as part of the female rock band Helen (note though, this is rock-lite by any standards).
With her first CD, Bailey Rae was often derided as a creation for the Starbucks set—aural wallpaper while sipping lattes but no one can accuse her of that with “The Sea.” This is music for when you need your coffee black. Very black. To awaken you out of the stupor you often walk around in life and to help you recognize just how precious and meaningful even the smallest epiphanies in life can be. Enjoy them. They might evaporate before your eyes.