Not having released an album since 2016, Corinne Bailey Rae was last heard from during lockdown, when an unknown American producer calling himself Ritt Momney turned a digitised reworking of her early hit Put Your Records On into a chirpy TikTok favourite.
The music that the Leeds singer-songwriter was actually making during this time could not be more different. Black Rainbows is a clean break from anything she’s done before, sprinting away from her cosy early sound in numerous different directions, from the grungey venom of Erasure to the Ethiopian jazz-inspired Before the Throne of the Invisible God. It’s extraordinary.
Early on, the 44-year-old was a better behaved rival to Amy Winehouse, her smooth soul losing out to the late star in both the British Female category at the 2007 Brit Awards and Song of the Year at the 2008 Grammys. She proved her musical sophistication back in 2010 with a second album, The Sea, given a stark darkness by the early death of her husband, but an attempt to reconnect with the mainstream on The Heart Speaks in Whispers didn’t produce further hits.
What it did do, however, was prompt her to visit the Stony Island Arts Bank while on tour in Chicago in 2017. A 1920s bank building turned into a 17,000 square feet centre of black art and history by the artist Theaster Gates, it contains slides, books and periodicals, the vast vinyl collection of the house music pioneer Frankie Knuckles, and Edward and Ana Williams’s collection of 4,000 examples of “negrobilia” – racist artefacts that they gathered to try to remove them from circulation.
Specific objects and images she found in this building inspired every song here, an approach so different for her that she initially passed this album off as a side project. That thinking, as well as leaving her major record label for an indie, has given her an artistic freedom that results in some magical sounds.
There’s the punk chanting of New York Transit Queen, prompted by a photo of fashion editor Audrey Smaltz winning a beauty contest in 1954. He Will Follow You With His Eyes also celebrates black beauty, this time with an edge that sees it twisting from loungey jazz into disorientating electronic layers: “I’ll be smouldering in my plum red lipstick/My black hair kinking/My black skin gleaming.”
Erasure, which sounds furious at the sight of that Williams collection, is followed by Earthlings, a space-age oddity advising humanity to try pressing “refresh”. She’s pressed her own refresh button extremely hard, and the results are remarkable.