To describe The Coral‘s new album ‘Coral Island’ as an magnum opus is almost too reductive. This double album is an awe-inspiring journey into childhood memories – the magic of the seaside, merry-go-rounds, penny arcades, promenades, the sound of seagulls and the smells of fast food – but it is not something mired in nostalgia or dreams of a supposed better world rooted firmly in the past. It is a palimpsest on which you can draw from the innocence of magic epitomised from a time in your life when all there was to look forward to was potential: the possibilities of the future unburdened by the massive weight of knowledge and reality.
Structurally, the band has both literally and metaphorically built an island that exists in the mists of time and recollections past. A physical manifestation of the island was built by Welsh artist Edwin Burdis on the roof of a Chinese Restaurant in Cardiff and this influenced and guided the development of the album – adding to the fertile, creative minds of The Coral.
The album is a movement in two parts: side one is this carnival island in full bloom during the summer season with all of the noise and energy, while side two takes us to the off-season – all shuttered attractions, wind-swept boardwalks and deserted pebbled beaches which are nonetheless populated by the sparkling detritus: the permanent characters of the carnival left behind when the tourists depart. There is no judgment – in our recent interview with James Skelly he points out that each season has its own magic:
…there is a magic in the spring, but then there is also a magic to the winter as well – the spookiness, the wind blowing through the harbour – everyone knows that and every now and again you have those moments where you feel really connected to stuff like that…
Interspersed throughout the album is a recording of James and Ian Skelly’s Grandad, beautifully recounting snippets of tales of the island – filled with a sort of pathos and enigmatic presence and floating with a story-telling verve and thrill.
Skelly beautifully describes the sense of innocence lost that attempts to be recaptured though this lense:
For years I felt like I haven’t looked at the sky – I mean really noticed it, and then once I had kids I could see it again through their eyes and felt connected to it again. That’s what ‘Lover Undiscovered’ was about.
Indeed ‘Lover Undiscovered’, which blasts off part one of the album after a short introduction, is one of those perfect indie pop songs that shimmers and shines with an inner glow – melodic and indelible – capturing that sense of renewed wonder Skelly describes. It is a glorious track that sets the scene for the following album.
‘Change Your Mind’ follows immediately with chiming, jangling guitars and a melancholy-infused melody, sky-high choruses. This is the sound of a band at the very top of their game – song writing that is solid and evocative.
‘Vacancy’ is another indie pop classic on side one, underpinned by a rolling, sparkling fairground organ riff and melancholy-infused melodies that stick like super glue:
And yet such is the depth of the album that these opening tracks do not define the album by any means. ‘Mist on The River’ has a sun-bleached tone and harmonic richness of sixties singing groups like the Mike Sammes Singers meeting with the Beach Boys – a sweetness that is born from celestial harmonies and a languid pace.
Towards the end of part one ‘Autumn Has Come’ literally follows the path of the protagonist through the dying fairground with a whirly gig jig evoking the sound of a merry-go-round spinning at a slow pace. The air of melancholy blows through like a chilling wind – the wind is whistling out of tune. This is a gracious ethereal track that provides a fitting halfway point to the album. The lustre falls from your eyes – and the album reaches its central point as the narrator poignantly and wryly observes:
You realise the tattoo of love was just a transfer that washes off with tears, like all the great mirages, it’s gone before you blink.
The promenade palm trees are plastic, the amusements are cardboard movie set, the drop of death doesn’t mean you die – nobody dies.
Part two of the journey takes us into a character-driven world of the permanent residents in this magical island during the bleak off-season. The plunky pace of ‘Golden Age’ is rich and bold, bringing to mind musical hall productions that are gaslamp lit and filled with over-made up actors bleached out in the footlights’ unforgiving shine. This is the introduction to the fading scene – what follows are tales of the inhabitants who maintain their lustre when the lights go down – the ‘Faceless Angel’ and the acutely evocative spoken word piece ‘The Great Lafayette’ – all 20 stone of him sits under a huge wall clock that hasn’t ticked or tocked in many a year….
‘Faceless Angel has a shuffling restless, reverberated pace – echoes and reflections with a fairground organ riff and a wild west Morricone guitar twanging with regret. You can almost see the dust balls rolling through the empty arcades and the squeak of a rusty shop sign swinging in the breeze:
‘The Calico Girl’ is a gorgeous ballad with a fairy tale rhythm that again recalls a dancehall vibe with a Beatles innocent upbeat with touches of Randy Newman – a fitting end to the musical array in the album.
This is a magnificent and incandescent album. It shines and sparkles with life and a joie de vivre that celebrates childhood wonder in a fairy land of bright lights and chiming music. It is filled with a sense of compassion, too, for those that continue to exist after the blinding lights have faded – perhaps a fitting celebration of those that give us joy then are moved on by fate and circumstance.
It is not, as Skelly was keen to point out, a concept album – it is an album filled with magic and tales – an album of many movements or vignettes, if you will, that reflect the themes of transience and entropy while maintaining deep down a sense of wonder and resilience. As Skelly said to us, it was prophetic that part two ended up being reflected in the shut down towns of the pandemic when the streets are deserted. Locked in isolation, maybe our true selves maintained the rage and kept the flames burning within our own little territories.
Indeed I have no doubt we will look back at this time and identify the creation of lockdown-era influenced cannon of artistic work. Within such confines, our imaginations have been given free reign and inevitably reach back to a time when we did not know what we know now – when we didn’t really know how truly horrific the world could be – our childhood. Or in Skelly’s words, before we began navigating the suffering of life. And this is the raw beauty of ‘Coral Island’: a colossal album that was, in a way, incredibly prescient to create and capture a panacea for the ordinary and dull.
‘Coral Island’ is out on 30 April 2021 – and don’t forget to read our interview with James Skelly which provides more insight to the band and the album. You can pre-order the album here in an impressive variety of formats. You can also get ‘In Coral Island’ – an accompanying book by Nick Power, illustrated by Ian Skelly that delves into the characters and stories of the Coral Island.