Not long after the release of her soothing, soulful third album, The Heart Speaks In Whispers, in 2016, Corinne Bailey Rae had a creative epiphany in the walls of the Stony Island Arts Bank, a vast archive of black history and art in Chicago, which houses everything from horrendous examples of exploitative “negrobilia” (such as postcards depicting lynchings) to DJ Frankie Knuckles’ enviable vinyl collection.
Rae’s surprising fourth album is inspired by the objects and stories she encountered there, beginning with the soul jazz overview of A Spell, A Prayer and journeying through a diverse musical landscape as she digests and responds to the staggering art on display, from the dissonant jazz funk instrumental title track to the rapturous torch pop of Red Horse.
Black Rainbows is a jolt of a listen for anyone who still hears Rae as the fragrant pop singer of Put Your Records On. Instead, she mines her indie rock background – she fronted grungey Leeds band Helen in the 90s – for Erasure, a howl of fuzz guitar and pounding drums with Rae raging that “they tried to erase you”.
From here, she dives seamlessly into the elastic analogue electronica of the darkly humorous Earthlings, robotically intoning “earthlings, you can start again, simply press refresh to begin again”, and emerges on the other side with the bubblegum punk blast of current single New York Transit Queen, inspired by a photograph of model Audrey Smaltz being crowned Miss New York Transit in 1954.
He Will Follow You With His Eyes is another sultry, rapturous number, with Rae breathily intoning like a beauty advert voiceover, its bossa nova-infused pop giving way to a tougher evocation of black beauty.
She soars on the bare ballad Peach Velvet Sky, imagining the chink of light which sustained escaped slave Harriet Jacobs when she went into hiding for seven years, and closes her remarkable odyssey with the spiritual jazz of Before the Throne of the Invisible God, inspired by the sunken rock-hewn churches of northern Ethiopia.