Corinne Bailey Rae's first, self-titled album was a breezy affair, a collection of open and friendly neo-soul songs that worked well enough to earn her a wide-ranging following and to go double platinum in the U.S. But that was in 2006, and for her, that's a lifetime ago.
In 2008, Rae's husband, musician Jason Rae, died, and it's in that aftermath that she has just released The Sea, a meditation on grief, pain and living amidst the ghosts of memory. It's also a joyous affair, but it's a joy very much tempered with the edge of death, which simultaneously makes it subdued and truly beautiful. It's a magnificent album, one that pays off with repeat listens, as its subtleties open and give themselves over to the terrible and miraculous wonder that is living.
The Sea has a harder sound than Rae's debut. Rae's vocals are a bit buried in the mix; the guitars have an occasional growl and the bass sometimes throbs with a malevolent intent. It is less a sound of foreboding than it is about the sound of pain realized. Yet there's no ploy for anyone's sympathy. On the album's first single, "I'd Do It All Again," she sings like a late-period Marvin Gaye, defiantly revealing her hurt and vulnerability while declaring that despite her pain, she wouldn't change a damn thing:
"Someone to love is bigger than your pride's worthEven better is "The Blackest Lily," easily the toughest and sexiest Rae song has ever recorded. You can feel the lingering memory of lust pervade every nuance of Rae's vocal, where that lust transformed into love - and where finally, she lost it. This is adult music, and it's music that's vaguely uncomfortable, like watching someone strip in front of your eyes, simply to show you who they really are.
It's bigger than the pain you got, for all it hurts
It outruns all the sadness
It's terrifying light to the darkness
And I'd do it all again"
It seems a cliche that great soul music comes from something more than a passing acquaintance with pain, but cliches are cliches for a reason - they're usually true. The Sea, Corinne Bailey Rae has made her version of a truly soulful album, one that does what the best of soul has always done - unflinchingly acknowledging life's most devastating blows, while also experiencing their terrible and magical ecstasy.