Review: Corinne Bailey Rae – Black Rainbows

Artwork for Corinne Bailey Rae's 2023 album Black Rainbows

Corinne Bailey Rae flips the script with challenging fourth album.

Corinne Bailey Rae albums are rarer than hen’s teeth – her latest, Black Rainbows, is the first since 2016’s The Heart Speaks In Whispers.

A self-confessed perfectionist, Bailey Rae was tinkering with Black Rainbows – which has been gestating since 2017 – as recently as this year: ‘I finished the last bit of recording the day before we sent it to be mixed. If you give me that amount of time, I will work right up to the last minute.’

Allowing so much time to elapse between albums makes continued commercial success unlikely — which, of course, makes the continued support of a major record label less likely too.

For Black Rainbows, Corinne Bailey Rae has parted company with Virgin/EMI, with which she had been partnered since her 2006 multi-platinum selling debut album, and signed with independent label Thirty Tigers instead.

After her deeply personal and ‘complicated’ 2010 sophomore effort The Sea, which dealt with the emotional fallout from the death of her first husband, Virgin/EMI were keen for Bailey Rae to regain her commercial standing with The Heart Speaks In Whispers. In her own words, Bailey Rae felt pressured to, ’go on repeating a particular type of pattern…sunny, uptempo, positive songs that also might be about love’.

Given what she has attempted to do with Black Rainbows, Corinne Bailey Rae’s decision to seek a more flexible working relationship, with an artist-centric independent label more accepting of her artistic instincts, seems a wise and necessary one. Black Rainbows is an album utterly resistant to categorisation, with a fiercely independent spirit and an uncompromising commitment to authentic artistic expression.

Many of the songs on the album have been directly inspired by Bailey Rae’s repeat visits to Chicago’s Stony Islands Arts Bank, a veritable cathedral of Black art established by the multidisciplinary artist Theaster Gates, with whom Bailey Rae has maintained regular contact.

The enormous scope and variety on show in Stony Islands’ collection has clearly instilled in Corinne Bailey Rae a sense of limitless possibility in her own art which absolutely translates onto record, as well as a newfound desire to explore Blackness — her own experiences and the histories of others.

On first listening to Black Rainbows, the listener is confronted by a kaleidoscopic procession of different styles, each song entirely different from the last. Riot Grrrl freakouts Erasure and New York Transit Queen arrive like hurricanes, between Bailey Rae’s crazed whoops and shrieks and the terrific crunch of saturated guitars, which rock as hard as any you will hear this year, the songs jump out of the speakers exactly as one would wish them to.

Meanwhile, spacey Earthlings is genuinely odd and angular in a way that would have made Bowie proud, and closer Before The Throne Of The Invisible God really does evoke images of African religious ecstasy, as was Bailey Rae’s intention, inspired as she was by images of the rock churches of Ethiopia.

Many other delights abound, but undoubtedly the most striking song on Black Rainbows, and the one most likely to be listed on ‘best of’ playlists for this year, is the pre-release single Peach Velvet Sky. (Do check out the accompanying video with Mayowa Ogunnaike’s beautifully realised interpretive dance, featuring a cameo from Bailey Rae.)

For an album with so much going on sonically, Peach Velvet Sky is particularly engaging because of its sparseness. Spare piano and Bailey Rae’s extraordinary vocal, channeling Joni Mitchell at her jazziest, with a hint of the clarity and storytelling dynamics of musical theatre, allows the superlative melody to unfurl without distraction.

Lyrically the song depicts with admirable sensitivity the mental trauma that Harriet Jacobs, an escaped slave in 1830’s America, must have gone through while she spent 7 years hidden in a crawlspace above her free grandmother’s house, watching her children play outside through a one inch hole and sewing them clothes by the meagre light.

Black Rainbows will likely go unnoticed by much of the music consuming general public, But for those seeking something different and more challenging, it is worth seeking out for its sincere and undiluted artistry.

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