Coral Island is an ambitious double-concept album themed around the faded glory of a sepia-tinged seaside fairground. The Coral have a distinctly more mellow sound now than their earlier 2000s music which maintained a bit more edge. This work is lovely though, evoking visions of wooden piers, metallic-smelling arcades and seagulls stealing half-melted ice creams to the soundtrack of jangly guitars, retro pop and folksy blues.
To say that The Coral is influenced by Britpop would be reductive, their influences span and reach much further than that. They owe a great deal to the original Liverpool guitar band The Beatles (as the songs accumulated for Coral Island they set about to create their own ‘White Album’), but The Coral have also channelled The Yardbirds, Bob Dylan, The Kinks, The Byrds, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Doors, and so on.
The run time comes to just under an hour, despite the twenty-four tracks. This is because around nine are interludes; I was slightly worried about the overtly thespian spoken word bits from Ian Murray (granddad to frontman James and drummer Ian Skelly). But actually, it works? Murray’s voice adds to the flow of the work, allowing for a real narrative to emerge from this totally self-contained album.
The first side ‘Welcome to Coral Island’ is a bit of a riot. Carnivalesque and dripping in wry romance, with that 60s psych, pop and folk-rock. ‘Lover Undiscovered’ is all sunny sweetness with some lovely lyrics:
“And when her hair hangs down / It’s like the sun touching the tides … And when I tug her close / She paints the moon on a paper sky”.
Murray continues to set the scene for heavenly romance on ‘Pavilions Of The Mind’ – the smell of candyfloss, promise rings, and every kiss feeling like the first. Then the first self-aware line from the following ‘Vacancy’ is “I walk alone, laughing in the face of love” with a fun waltzing organ thrown in there (think The Doors ‘Light my Fire’).
‘Change Your Mind’ is all Merseybeat in its jangly guitar strumming (very Stone Roses) and ‘My Best Friend’ is a folksy ode to friendship. Even the downbeat songs like ‘Mist On The River’ are drenched in romance with harmonising vocals alike those of Crosby, Stills & Nash.
That relentless infatuation that occurs so specially in the rush of summer is captured on ‘The Game She Plays’. A story that is seemingly continued on ‘Autumn Has Come’, a jaunty tune waxing the end of the golden days:
“I see the boats docked in the harbour, the wind is whistling out of tune, ride the ghost train til the morning, and hope it takes me back to you”.
Sure enough, Murray tells us that the mirage has disappeared (“like all the great mirages it’s gone before you blink”), that the promenade trees turn out to be plastic and that the amusements are mere cardboard movie sets.
The second half ‘The Ghost Of Coral Island’ is more moody, reflective, and melancholy. It opens with “a bar with a neon vacancy light, and a jukebox that plays warped records: Perry Como and Tom O’Connor”, giving way to darker fairground melodies that slowly develop.
There’s some foray into skiffle on ‘Faceless Angel’, ‘Strange Illusions’ is hypnotic and uneasy, and ‘Watch You Disappear’ is a sad belter, as The Coral do so well. ‘Golden Age’ has strong ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’ energy, in both the steady, deep vocals and the folksy Americana. Or perhaps it’s more Leonard Cohen in its considered lyrical rhymes?
Bluesy ‘Land Of The Lost’ is potentially my favourite on the album, ending with a gorgeous, slick echo-y guitar solo – at first listen it reminded me of Gorillaz’s ‘Clint Eastwood’ because of the melodica use. Skelly ends by channelling full McCartney on acoustic closing track ‘The Calico Girl’.
Insanely intricate and well-crafted, this is a colourful sonic adventure from start to finish. The Coral have written an epic that acknowledges the northern seaside towns, the fading glamour of their glory days and the tough seasonal cycles they went through, and I’m so very here for it.