British soul singer Corinne Bailey Rae burst on the music scene in 2006 with her self-titled debut. The airy “Put Your Records On” established her as a promising artist, with its blend of jazz and modern R&B. Other cuts such as “Like A Star” and the funky “I’d Like To” demonstrated her versatility and overall positive outlook. Her second studio album, The Sea, marks a change from her first effort in that it features moody, deeply textured tracks that require repeated listenings to fully absorb their sound.
During The Sea’s recording, Rae’s husband died of an accidental drug overdose in 2008. That event pervades the album, with lyrics clearly reflecting her grief. The muted “Are You Here” seemingly recalls their first meeting: “He’s a real live wire/He’s the best of his kind/Wait till you see those eyes” she sings in a fragile voice. The lead single, the jazz-tinged “I’d Do It All Again,” Rae beautifully expresses that love can cause pain, but is ultimately rewarding: “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.” But the song ends on an ominous note with the verse “You’re searching for something I know won’t make you happy.” While the mood is somber, the song ultimately communicates hope for love.
Strong drums, deep bass, and rock guitars are buried in the mix, adding additional layers and emotions to each song. “Feels Like the First Time” adds slightly discordant piano and a shuffling rhythm (accented by rhythm guitar), with the lyrics reflecting the less-than-perfect love affair of “Like A Star.” “Love’s on Its Way” sounds like a lament, but like “I’d Do It All Again,” expresses optimism. “I’ve never felt more powerless,” she sings mournfully, but then hopes for new love: “Love’s on its way/I hope it won’t be too late,” she sings. At this refrain the band explodes into a strong, bass-driven beat, suggesting an emotional crescendo of grief.
Despite the serious underlying meanings on many tracks, The Sea also contains some upbeat, funky moments. “The Blackest Lily” features gospel-tinged organ and a rocking guitar solo, but the arrangement never overshadows Rae’s Minnie Riperton-reminiscent vocals. Fans of her first album will enjoy the slow burn of “Closer,” where she seduces a lover: “I want you to travel with me/Lay loose and let your mind go free.” Jazz trumpet accents Rae’s voice as she confidently rides the groove. As on her first album, Rae displays her versatility on “Paris Nights/New York Mornings,” which contains a straightforward rock tempo.
Rae can tell stories from other people’s perspectives, such as on the dark “Paper Dolls.” “Nobody told me I could be something,” the narrator laments, but still maintains her façade. “It gets to the point where they expect it/And who are you to disappoint them anyway?” she sings. But Rae suggests that the lie will come back to haunt her: “Many words that have been spoken cut me out like paper dolls/Made me into something different/Something I could not dissolve.” The song begs the question: where does the false persona end and the real person begin?
Perhaps no other track sums up the deeper meanings of The Sea than the last two tracks, “Diving for Hearts” and “The Sea.” The former song again refers to her personal tragedy: “Can’t forget the things I’ve seen,” she laments, but she longs to “keep on diving/Till my heart is found.” In the soothing waters, she sings, “There’s no fear/There’s no cause for panic/There’s just this bright cold calm.” She calls upon an unnamed source to “show me how to find it again/.If I’m lost, show me where you are.” One senses that Rae wishes to find peace and removal of her pain; writing these songs presumably helps her find catharsis. The final cut, the title track, achingly recapitulates her grief: “The sea, the majestic sea/Breaks everything, crushes everything/Cleans everything, takes everything/From me.”
While The Sea communicates all Rae has endured since her husband’s death, it also expresses hope in love’s healing power. Fans expecting something as immediately accessible as “Put Your Records On” might be puzzled by the new album, but repeated listenings undercover the songs’ true beauty and complexity. Spend time in The Sea for a rewarding musical experience.