It wasn't the vision of grief most were expecting. Sitting on a stool holding her guitar, accompanied only by a pianist on the British TV show Later with Jools Holland, Corinne Bailey Rae was, in a word, gorgeous. Gone was the pretty, slightly nerdy English Lit major whose eponymous debut CD of confectionary confessional soul-pop was a surprise international hit.
For Holland's show, Rae, chic in a simple black dress, her curly hair sexily brushing her shoulders, used the primary tool of modern pop-star reinvention (a fashion makeover) as armor, a device of deflection as she stepped back onto the public stage after the death of her husband in 2008. But then she launched into the single "I'd Do It All Again," written in response to her widowhood. Musically bare, the performance was mesmerizing: heartfelt love song, poetic eulogy and an emotionally complex tapestry of words delivered in a voice that cracked on one line only to soar on the next.
If you listen to her new album, The Sea, with expectation of elegies, you'll be rewarded on tracks like "Are You Here," "I'd Do It All Again," "I Would Like to Call It Beauty" and the title tune. What makes The Sea so good, though, is the range of emotions and experiences it maps — lyrically and in the sweeping ebb and flow of arrangements and instrumentation, often all within a single song. In the videos and promotional appearances for the record, Rae's been clad in sleek designer duds, sporting subtle but sophisticated makeup. The new CD, written by Rae (co-writers appear on three songs) similarly confounds expectation. Largely but not completely shorn of its predecessor's pop hooks, Sea outlines loss by capturing something of the spectrums of life and love, juxtaposing tearjerkers with songs of sexual tension, breezy playfulness and spiritual reflection.
Opening with the desolate indie-rock guitar lines of "Are You Here," evoking '90s female singer-songwriter guitar fare, The Sea carries you through electronica flourishes, rock blasts and faint tropical grooves. (Eclecticism comes naturally to Rae, who has impressively covered Björk, the Raconteurs, Led Zeppelin and Aretha Franklin.) "The Blackest Lily" and "Paper Dolls" nod to her rock roots, while the sultry, elastic-grooved R&B of "Closer" is a sustained wave of carnality not even hinted at on her debut. "Paris Nights/New York Mornings" is so airily effervescent it seems a missing track from the debut CD. The water imagery of "Diving for Hearts" throbs to vaguely Björkian muted beats, while the timely, hymnlike "Love's on Its Way" cedes that love is all you need but asks if it will arrive in time — and what to do while waiting: "There's so much blood on the streets/so much hope refused ... I want to be able to say that I did more than pray/did more than spend my money/did more than talking and saying the right thing ...
"I've been a solider for much too long/I'd willingly surrender all my arms ..." Rae sings on The Sea's "Feels Like the First Time." In doing so, she echoes Sade's patented love-as-war lyrics, using a metaphor that has been fed steroids and flipped on the title track of Sade's Soldier of Love.
Coming 10 years after Lovers Rock, Sade's last studio album, Soldier is up against a near unscalable wall of expectation. Fan reaction to the leaked title track ranged from euphoria at the harder sound to grumbling that the group had lost its way with the spaghetti Western guitar riff and drum corps beats that gird the defiantly affirmative lyrics. Nothing else on the CD is as sonically jarring, though the band continues the subtle genre-bending it has explored since 1988's Stronger Than Pride. Both Rae's and Sade's CDs flaunt genre promiscuity. Rae's more obviously slips borderlines; Sade's is part natural evolution (reggae and dub have long been staples of the band's palette) and part concerted effort to veer left of expectation. ("Be That Easy," off the new disc, wouldn't be out of place on a country-music jukebox.) Both CDs tap multiple references and sources without perpetuating the ham-fisted cultural miscegenation that now passes for visionary musicianship. Shit feels natural, unforced.
There's a paradoxically sparse but epic feel to much of Soldier, whose lushly layered production never feels cluttered. Subject matter is vintage Sade: the brutal beating that heart and spirit can take in pursuit of and retreat from life and love; and steely determination in the face crushing defeats. Quick-draw blogosphere response dismissed the album as boring, sans hooks, sans good songs — similar to arguments made against Love Deluxe and Lovers Rock upon their initial releases. Soldier will likely similarly rise in estimation. It asks time and attention to unpeel its subtleties, but there are immediate standouts. "Baby Father" channels American urban idiom through a Brit filter for its title, resting its subversive overhaul of baby-daddy drama atop a lovely reggae foundation. "Skin" is a wonderfully brooding kiss-off whose slight "Cherish the Day" feel softens the giddy perversion of name-checking Michael Jackson in a song titled "Skin." The opening track, "The Moon and the Sky," and the piano-driven "Morning Bird" are sublime minimalist torch fare, while "In Another Time" features a warmly relaxed doo-wop groove cradling a stock Sade heroine — the misunderstood, mistreated girl longing to escape small minds and the cruelties they inflict.
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Sade is lovely with her pen. Her lyrics and the characters who inhabit them, whether named (Jezebel, Maureen, Sally, Frankie), unnamed (as in "Pearls," "Clean Heart") or conveyed through persona and myth-burnishing first person, are emotionally specific while being open-ended enough for listeners to insert or recognize themselves in the narratives. There's a generosity of spirit, evident in the tenderness with which she observes and presents the war-torn folk in her lyrics, which makes her a throwback, as both singer and songwriter. A lot of modern R&B, influenced by rap's first-person thrust, posits singers on a me-myself-and-I tip, leaving listeners the option of either connecting through over-identification with someone's journal entries set to music, or sitting stranded on the sidelines.
It's not just the lyrics or the stellar accompaniment of the band and its longtime cohorts (co-producer Mike Pela; backing vocalists Leroy Osbourne and Tony Momrelle; music-video director Sophie Mueller, the only other woman in the camp) that pull you in. It's also that voice, an instrument of postcoital chill and mid–ganja-trip cool. Naturally grainy and husky, it's deepened with age but still flames vulnerability, sadness, longing and, yes, melancholy. It's what makes her blue-tint defiance ("Now as I begin to wash you off my skin/I'm gonna peel you away/'Cause you're not right within,") resonate so. In "The Safest Place," when she sings, "In my heart your love has found the safest place ... My heart's been a lonely warrior who's been to war/so you can be sure/your love's in a sacred place, the safest hiding place," she's speaking as someone who knows how to fight, and win. The voice tells it all.
CORINNE BAILEY RAE The Sea (Capitol)
SADE Soldier of Love (Sony)