Merseysiders, The Coral, are back with a rollercoaster double-album that leaves you pining for candy-floss, slot machines and teen love in the fading summer dusk of our childhood amusement arcades. Their 2018 album, Move Through The Dawn, closed with the song, ‘After the Fair’. It seems that even then, the wheels were already in motion for this latest carousel-inspired extravaganza, Coral Island - their 10th studio album and their first-ever dual disc release, recorded at the legendary Parr Street Studios in Liverpool.
Mercury-nominated for their debut in 2002, The Coral have not dropped their guard since, consistently producing simply brilliant music. Five of their nine previous albums have hit the Top 10. Their craft has now crystallised into the form of this monster, conceptual double-album. I use the term ‘conceptual’ lightly, as the album's theme is completely relatable with no sense of high-brow or pretensions, exactly what we have come to expect of the Skelly brothers and Co.
Spun from the memories of the band’s seaside recollections in places such as Rhyl or Blackpool, the album could evocatively point to any fairground on the British or Irish coastline. It digs deep into the seasonal cycles of such places, profoundly heart-warming and heart-breaking at the same time.
With tracks such as ‘Lover Undiscovered’ and ‘My Best Friend’, the first half of the LP is full of mystery, hope, flirtatious promise and adventure; the scene is alive with stories from the hoards of daytrippers. The second half of the album sees the faux funhouse unmasked for what it really is, as reality bites for the characters that live in these places after the crowds have gone. There is a darker edge, and you can visualise the tumbleweed blowing through the empty arcades & alleyways on the likes of ‘Golden Age’ and ‘Old Photographs.’ Perhaps this is a nod to the unstoppable erosion of our childhood memories, unable to recover our innocent past fully. The quality of the music throughout doesn’t fade, though.
The collection features 15 signature Coral tunes and nine interludes, told softly by 85-year old Ian Murray (aka ‘The Great Muriarty’) - the Grandfather of James and Ian Skelly. As frontman James Skelly points out, “It seemed to call for a tour guide of some kind. Our grandad’s voice was an obvious choice to say the words none of us can say without a musical instrument in our hands.” You could be forgiven for initially brushing over these momentary breaks from the tunes. However, his voice is like velvet, and there is something very moving about his narrative. Perhaps it is because it is told by someone that we know is dear to the Skelly brothers. But there’s something else here - it is someone’s voice that we all can recognise. This touch is an integral part of the overall flow, feel and theme of the LP.
The harmonic and up-tempo ‘Change Your Mind’ has pangs of yearning about it. Whereas, ‘Mist on the River has a distinct ‘60s psychedelic vibe - “Chasing shapes lost in time / I dream of running and taking chances, that's where we belong." Ian Murray’s narrative has a dark undercurrent to it, juxtaposed with the warmth of his voice - “On the south pier, the gangs reunited / The smell of candy floss on the off-shore breeze / Every kiss feels just like the first / no-one’s cursed.” The title of this particular snippet - ‘Pavilions of the Mind,’ suggest a deeper level of exploration into our human psyche here, reflecting the hauntingly beautiful mood around the LP.
One of the gems on the album as a whole is their latest single, ‘Vacancy.’ It dances with the likes of The Doors & Inspiral Carpets with its signature organ riff and also contains some of the band’s best lyrics - "I walk alone, laughing in the face of love / I glide through the alleyways / It’s bittersweet, like a glass-half-full with rain.” It’s a real melancholy banger, peppered with a bopping bass line from Paul Duffy. Skelly carries on, "Stitching the star, pulling at every seam / I feel like a fly, before it hits the window screen.” Superb stuff!
‘My Best Friend’ is unpretentious pop pleasure at its best, in contrast, to the change of pace on the untouchable and hazy ‘The Game She Plays.’ The final song on the first disc, ‘Autumn Has Come’ begins to wind down the endless days of summer fun and shines a light on what is to come in the second half of the LP - "Spend the evening chasing shadow / the leaves reflect the colour of my mood / See the boats docked in the harbour, the wind is whistling out of tune." It brings you back to that deflation as a kid and those looming grey school days just around the corner, stealing our freedom. Grandpa Murray underscores this in his prose on ‘The End of the Pier’ - "You realise the tattoo of love was just a transfer that washes off with tears / It's a kaleidoscope daydream, the whole thing."
‘The Great Muriarty’ opens the second half with ‘The Ghost of Coral Island’ - "There's a bar with a neon vacancy light, and a jukebox that plays warped records - Perry Como and Tom O'Connor." Interestingly, the band had toyed with the idea of asking the latter to cover the spoken word on ‘Coral Island’, only to deliver the masterstroke of appointing Skelly's Grandfather for the role.
The Ennio Morricone style guitar solo in ‘Faceless Angel’ adds to the spaghetti-seaside drama, and the gloom begins to fully descend on ‘The Great Lafayette’ as Murray pronounces, “There’s a room of caretakers with nothing to care for / the werewolf has been unmasked.” Leonard Cohen influences are everywhere on the hypnotic and entrancing ‘Golden Age’ - “It’s worth every penny that you spend / the golden age has just begun / Hear the laughter, sing the song. We’ll make you feel like you belong.”
‘Strange Illusions’ is another sad belter with Skelly on top form, “Weave their way into my dreams like patterns in a tapestry / a drifter on an endless road.” ‘Summertime’ is upbeat, nostalgic and old-school, then slowing down to a finger-picking cruise on the stark ‘Old Photographs.’ The mysterious ‘Watch You Disappear’ has the stamp of The Kinks, alongside the bluesy ‘Land of the Lost’, which features some slick musicianship from ex-Zuton Paul Molloy on guitar and the wonderful Nick Power on keys.
‘The Calico Girl’ is a quirky & simple end to the band’s excursion on the album; however, fittingly, it is the final words from Murray that brings the curtain down on this seaside adventure perfectly on ‘The Last Entertainer’ - “Coral Island has gone beyond a ghost town, to a purgatory / Here’s where they long and belong.”
Much like the opening song on the album, ‘Lover Undiscovered’, which is all about seeing the true beauty in someone or something that you may have taken for granted, The Coral have been a constant, solid group that has produced an impressive catalogue of top-notch music for almost 20 years. With this wonderfully colourful and sonic story through Coral Island, they will delight once again, getting the masses to sit up & take notice, and in doing so, they may have just made the album of their lives.
They have deservedly thrown any caution to the wind and produced a true, modern masterpiece with Coral Island. It sounds like an album they have always wanted to make and truly enjoyed the ride.