Corinne Bailey Rae: The Sea

RIYL: India.Arie, Des’ree, Roberta Flack

Corinne Bailey Rae’s self-titled debut was a Starbucks hit, selling nearly two million copies on the strength of the immediate chord it struck with fans of vaguely jazzy, vaguely folky pop singers like Norah Jones. It also took its share of lumps for being yet another in the chain of politely soulful albums that have flooded the marketplace over the last five years or so; though it showed flashes of real talent, VH1-ready singles like “Put Your Records On” put Rae across as pleasant at best.

Well, whatever else you might be able to say about it, Rae’s sophomore effort, The Sea, isn’t pleasant – like the body of water it’s named after, this is a collection of songs that might sometimes seem placid on the surface, but which boast unfathomable, often stormy depths. It’s an album steeped in grief, shadowed by death, and wrapped in yards of delicate, folk-and-jazz-tinged arrangements. Even on the album’s more up-tempo tracks, such as “Paper Dolls,” there’s an overwhelming sense of something – probably Rae – about to break. Even if you just play The Sea in the background, you’ll catch hints of its disquieting vibe.


All for good reason, of course – as you may recall, Rae’s husband died unexpectedly in 2008, and many of these songs find her coping – seemingly quite directly – with her loss. It’s always a mistake to treat albums like these as the artists’ personal diaries, but when the first track is titled “Are You Here” and features lines like “Are you here? Because my heart recalls that it all feels the same”…well, you get the idea.

So yes, The Sea is a rather dark and stormy record, but it’s never maudlin; partly on account of Rae’s vocals, which are lighter than air at their heaviest, the music’s grief never threatens to overwhelm the songs. That being said, a little overwhelming might not be such a bad thing – Rae’s aesthetic is one of slight shifts and slighter melodies, and if you’ve previously dismissed her work, it’s hard to hear much here that’ll change your mind. Perhaps more importantly, if you loved Corinne Bailey Rae, this album’s darker tone might be off-putting. Rae deserves applause for pouring so much of herself into these songs; still, even after you’ve plumbed its depths, it’s hard not to wish The Sea’s surfaces weren’t so calm. (Capitol Records 2010)

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