“I felt my music was left of center,”Corinne Bailey Rae confessed during a 2010 interview with The Independent, surprised at the huge success of her debut album, which went four times platinum. The interviewer disagreed, citing Rae’s knack for melody; her breezy, honeyed voice; and her personable music videos, but in retrospect, Rae’s self-assessment feels right-on. Since her debut, the British singer, songwriter and producer has had a penchant for experimentation, slyly stretching her voice up and down, tinkering with song structure, styling her own hair. The experimental flourishes of her second album, The Sea, were glossed over by the death of her first husband, but they were there, particularly in the moody production, which Rae helmed. On The Heart Speaks in Whispers, her first album in six years, Rae’s experimentation is more explicit, on the mic and behind the boards.
Following The Sea, Rae produced every track. Her compositions are metamorphic, shuffling between genre and tone with lava-lamp fluidity. “Green Aphrodisiac” morphs from a twinkly purr to a psychedelic hip-roller. “Tell Me” mutates from spacey neo-soul to dazzling soft rock, Rae’s voice smooth yet razor-sharp as she sings of dreams, empowerment and community. “Let’s make our own scene” she repeats, championing the DIY ethos, maybe even channeling #OscarsSoWhite.
Rae’s time spent in the L.A. “black bohemian alternative scene” is palpable, her voice as sensual as ever. “Ooh ooh!” she coos excitedly on “Horse Print Dress,” playful yet tantalizing. Even “Caramel,” a light ballad about overcoming heartbreak and reconsidering love, oozes desire, Rae’s delivery subtly impatient, ready to rebound.
Rae’s marriage to fellow musician Stephen Brown in 2013 buoys the album’s themes of advancement and perseverance. “You’ll maybe drown, but you’ll find that you can breathe underwater,” she sings on “Walk On,” likely referencing The Sea and its tragic circumstances. But it would be a grand misreading to view her marriage as the foundation of the album. Above all, Rae seems to be inspired by nature. Allusions to stars, constellations, skies and galaxies abound, elemental energies propelling her as she confronts new challenges and obstacles, and imagines new futures. The heart may speak in whispers, but if you listen closely, love isn’t all it speaks of.
For more from Corinne Bailey Rae, check out a performance of “Put Your Records On” from 2009 in the player below.