Corinne Bailey Rae is ready to rip up the rulebook. New album ‘Black Rainbows’ – her first in seven years – is a terrific display of bracing yet ultimately soulful noises, a mesh of punk, electronics, gospel, and beyond, all delivered with a striking sense of purpose. It’s unexpected, but that only adds to its impact: staunch in its originality, ‘Black Rainbows’ breaks with her past to claim a riveting future.
It opens with the ghostly, frosted vocal on ‘A Spell, A Prayer’. Corinne’s delivery is pinned down by staccato guitar and that eerie choral arrangement, the sense of an incantation sweeping from the speakers. Quietly overwhelming, the radio static makes for a Radiohead-meets-gospel arrangement, pivoting between admiration for tradition and the necessity of the individual voice.
Title song ‘Black Rainbows’ is an arresting piece of machine funk, nodding to Prince but also embracing something rather more industrial. ‘Erasure’ is dominated by those punk guitars, a chainsaw cutting into her own catalogue, severing the links to her past. It’s not a solitary statement, either: ‘New York Transit Queen’ stuns with its nursery rhyme meets Riot Grrrl stance. A world away from 2006 ear-worm ‘Put Your Records On’, it can more than hold its own against Bikini Kill, say, or Nova Twins.
‘Earthlings’ has an eerie, sub-zero feel, before giving way to the twinkling, sparkling magic of ‘Red Horse’. Lyrically, the album can sweep from startling, imagistic phrasing to moments of pure illumination – Corinne Bailey Rae can take down the male gaze on one hand, or demolish the white-rooted vision of popular culture, before dipping into the sub-conscious, putting meaning to feelings that usually exist beyond explanation.
‘He Will Follow You With His Eyes’ is personal story, one that becomes a universal message on the pervasive male gaze. ‘Put It Down’ offers palpable depth, while the scintillating vocal on ‘Peach Velvet Sky’ balances on neo-classical piano lines, as dainty and ultimately as assured as a prima ballerina.
Closing with the ambitious ‘Before The Throne Of Invisible God’, this isn’t an album to be understood quickly. Musicality of incredible depth and no small degree of originality, ‘Black Rainbows’ is a wild, entracing journey through creavity. Having long-since perfected a pop-soul template, Corinne Bailey Rae shatters this on a record that feels spiritually closer to Bjork, say, or even Tom Waits. A hugely impressive, frequently stunning return, ‘Black Rainbows’ ranks as one of the year’s most imposing comebacks.
Words: Robin Murray