My 21st Century Blues (Human Re Sources)
As someone making highly accessible, cross-border pop music, it probably shouldn’t be said of Raye that she is all the more interesting the more deviations she takes from the recognisable path. Though that would be a proper two-fingers up to the industry nabobs who blocked her path at previous labels (male, white, smugly certain, controlling, abusive, as she describes throughout this album), or the regular joe bastard offered up in the boom and swish/Adele-could-try-this drama of Oscar Winning Tears.
Which isn’t to say she’s not interesting in straight, or straightish, mode. Escapism, the hit which preceded this album, puts fluttering upper vocals against closer to spoken lower voice, brings both striding verses and a bridge of engaging uncertainty around a chorus that delights in not actually being a chorus, and the lyrics demand and regret in a tricky balance.
And while Hard Out Here slows the R&B as she speeds up the delivery for a kind of loping bounce, the kick inside of the lyrics start to cut down that bounce: “Smile in your face, all of the pricks, all of the wankers/I had to chill, smoke it away, manage my anger.”
There’s also a balancing act happening in Environmental Anxiety which has a bright skip-forward rhythm and gloomier onrushing drums that appear to chase it, a borderline highly annoying vocal treatment at the very start and multi-layered later voices that bring creaminess. It’s a stop-start pop tune, but pop it certainly is.
Meanwhile, there’s no ambiguity in the brass-and-velvet The Thrill Is Gone which brings Frank-era Amy Winehouse and Raphael Saadiq-style soul together for a big swing at the bleachers that soars high.
But things get more intriguing, and then with fascinating edge, elsewhere. Such as when she pulls back the sonic coverage in the first half of Mary Jane, offering a soulful blues that treads finely along a thin (guitar) line between succour and a place to fall, and then as it fills out the sound in the second half the infiltration of uneasy electronic treatments begins to colour the way the layered vocals are perceived.
What was pretty trembles with disturbance, much like Body Dysmorphia’s trill vs glide intersection of emotional discomfort and groove.
Not that anything is as disturbing as the slow unravelling (of us, not her) in Ice Cream Man, where a delicate, elegant melody, sung over a lightly percussive undercarriage offers the promise of an easy passage. Ha! The sound thickens, but the voice never does, and Raye doesn’t rely on the surrounds to amplify what is revealed as first of all a tale of assault and then one of certainty and power reclaimed.
As Raye says in Hard In Here, “No weapon formed against me shall ever prosper/I bounce baby, I bounce back.”
APPLE MUSIC: Listen to Raye – My 21st Century Blues