The Coral have never taken the easy route. This is the band who followed up two albums of radio hits with Nightfreak and the Sons of Becker. Even by their standards, though, choosing to release a concept double album set in an imagined seaside town seems to be a work of bloody-mindedness in a world of streaming and shortened attention spans. Whatever their rationale, it is a decision that has paid off. The 24 tracks on offer here, including several spoken word interludes adding colour to the world they sketch out in their songs, capture the band at their most undeniably ‘them’.
The same influences that the band have worn on their sleeve for their career surface again here. The music takes in psychedelia, Merseybeat, chanson, folk and a whole range of 60s-adjacent genres in between. Which is not to say that the band are offering up pastiches of others’ work. These influences are corralled into a sound that, whilst evoking those influences, is unmistakably theirs.
Nor are they simply rehashing former glories. The songs on show here are as effortless and melodic as any in their career. Just listen to ‘Change Your Mind’ with its sunny strummed guitar and the gorgeous backing vocals on the chorus, or ‘Old Photographs’ with its maudlin but beautiful lyrics about old photographs being ‘negatives of nowhere towns’. To say that the boys know their way around a tune would be an understatement.
On some songs, like the penultimate ‘Calico Girl’, they strip things back to just voice and guitar, no production effects to soften the absent-minded dreaming of his ‘calico girl’ and ‘Monte Carlo millions’. Elsewhere, their approach is more expansive. On ‘Vacancy’ they deploy organ to Zombies-like effect, whilst ‘Summertime’ makes use of steel guitar and music hall piano to conjure up holidays by the sea.
There’s also a poetry in their lyrics that I haven’t sensed so strongly before. That chorus from ‘Old Photographs’ is a haunting image, one that gets under your skin without you really knowing why. “There’s a mist on the river / for you” from ‘Mist on the river’ is another line whose initial simplicity gives way to richer symbolism. The album is full of nuggets like this. Snippets of lyrics hang around at the fringes of your consciousness as the songs play, arresting but hard to pin down.
Over the course of the album, certain lyrical concerns repeat themselves. There is a strong seam of nostalgia and loss running through the album. Whether it’s love on ‘Autumn Has Come’, or the good times on ‘Golden Age’, there is a keen sense throughout of things lost and never to be recovered. The songs look backwards, unwilling to ponder the present too much, and unable to imagine a future. The shift from the sunnier songs in the album’s first half to their more reflective counterparts in its home stretch emphasises this sense.
‘Coral Island’, the concept album’s imagined place, doesn’t present itself as somewhere its inhabitants want to be. Ghosts walk the floorboards of its abandoned piers, fairgrounds, and music halls. It’s a liminal space, somewhere from which the fun has departed. It’s the ‘seaside town’ of Morrisey’s ‘Everyday is Like Sunday’ refracted through a cracked mirror, the wurlitzers of the fairground demented and haunting as they echo around. On ‘Land of the Lost’, there is something achingly vulnerable and defeated about Skelly describing himself as a “prisoner” and begging his listener to “walk beside me in the land of the lost”.
But whilst the protagonists of Coral Island might be dreaming of escape, the listener will be happy to stick around. I have a low tolerance threshold for double albums, concept albums, and spoken work interludes on records. As soon as my first listen ended, however, I dived straight back in again. You’ll want to spend plenty of time on Coral Island.
Words by Will Collins