Inevitable in life is loss, but don't fret so much: Just as it makes the rose smell sweeter and the summer feel warmer, implicit impermanence makes the ache of love that much more pronounced. That relationship makes Corinne Bailey Rae's new disc, The Sea, a perfect follow-up to her self-titled 2006 smash. What's more natural after a coming-out party than a goodbye?
No one would wish upon the 31-year-old British singer the heartbreak she suffered with the 2008 death of her husband, Jason Rae, of course. A young riot grrrl in high school, Bailey was inspired by acts like L7 and Veruca Salt to start an all-girl band, Helen. Helen nearly signed to Roadrunner Records before the bassist got pregnant, collapsing the whole project. Bailey enrolled at the University of Leeds and got a part-time job as a hatcheck attendant at a local jazz club. The gig opened her eyes to a new style of music and introduced her to her future husband, who played sax in Haggis Horns. They married in 2001.
With his encouragement, she began a solo career three years later, eventually scoring universal accolades and awards for 2006's platinum-selling Corinne Bailey Rae. Smart, sweet and surprisingly breezy, it combines jazzy neo-soul with a lithe, Laurel Canyon singer/ songwriter style. In March 2008, Jason Rae died from a mix of methadone and alcohol.
While pocked with regret, The Sea is not the grief-fest one might expect. Rather, it's a confusion of feelings that mimics real loss with a mix of love, longing, nostalgia, pain and resilience across 11 songs. It's an emotionally dynamic journey, an aspect only amplified by Bailey's more eclectic musical approach this time around.
Though that movement is something of a detriment from song to song, it enriches the album as a whole. The Sea, then, is a messy, heart-tugging panorama that, despite occasional downcast turns, is more affirmation of life than extended lament. "Strained as love's become, it still amazes me," she sings on "I Would Like to Call It Beauty." On the elegaic "I'd Do It All Again," she manages, "Someone to love is bigger than your pride's worth/ Bigger than the pain you got for it hurts."
The Sea proclaims that ache is better appreciated as a passing mood that spotlights the power and redemptive beauty of love, a lesson malingering indie rockers might take to heart. Indeed, it's the songs still trapped in those dazzling, love-struck moments that hit the hardest. "Are You Here," for instance, wavers like a sapling in the wind before alighting upon a shimmering psychedelic bloom awash in background vocals. Bailey uses the present tense to describe how Rae's kiss makes her feel 16 again, poignantly highlighting the difficulty of accepting change: "Are you here? 'Cause my heart recalls that; it all feels the same."
The swinging jazz-rock of "Paris Nights and New York Mornings" is nearly as powerful. Given over to warm remembrance, it's an upbeat reverie only interrupted by the sadly wizened acknowledgement, "You change and grow/ But we were young, we were young and we didn't know."
More straightforward love paeans—from the sexy, triumphant surrender of the soul-soaked "Closer" to the percussive breakbeat-touched "Feels Like the First Time"—serve as the counterpoints to those more reflective moments. The innocence in these two tracks suggests they might've been among those Bailey was rumored to have completed recording before Rae's death.
Like a calamity, The Sea doesn't parse easily. It flows in several directions and adopts an array of tones, but as with any love, these very flaws become endearing. Over time the album tugs and wheedles its way into your heart. Its very disorganization comes not only as a testament to Bailey's broad talents but also an expression of her humanity.