Realism or escapism. The choice seems particularly stark at the moment. Defying these poles of creative gravity, The Coral’s expansive new double-album Coral Island hovers somewhere between the two. Built around an imaginary run-down sea-side venue, on the surface the album could be described as otherworldly and ethereal. Yet it is the mixture of lost worlds and nearly-real descriptions that makes this such an eerie collection of tracks. Despite its showy facade, Coral Island is a shadowy sort of place. The hotel dance floor, we are told, is covered with ‘discarded cigar butts, betting receipts’ and there is a ‘jukebox that plays warped records’. There are caretakers ‘with nothing to care for’.
With all its shimmering dankness, Coral Island can’t be thought of as pure escapism. Its intriguing and vivid weirdness aside, this figment of The Coral’s imagination retains a descriptive and unsettling quality. At the same time, there is something about its visions of dusty, battered, bulbs-missing-from-the-illuminations scenery that is too quirky and caricatured to be thought of simply as an unvarnished account of the past or the present, it is something else entirely. The deserted spaces of Coral Island carry a sense of the out-of-time dislocation of recent times.
Otherworldly but familiar, these songs are silhouettes rather than reflections, apparitions of lost worlds rather than neat drawings. Coral Island is a twisted version of the present. These twists lend it a haunting feel. There is also a fragile delicacy to its songs and to the unusual interspersed spoken-word storytelling. As a vision of a particular place, Coral Island doesn’t really take on a solid form during the album’s 24 tracks. The lyrical depictions and echoey sounds paint a loose picture. This is a kind of musical impressionism; the listener is left with a watery vision of the landscape. Dealing in such impressions, this imaginary place provides an almost legible backdrop to the album, the characters and buildings that populate it bring life and an almost tangible sense of structure to the setting.
This type of conceptual imagery — conjuring a place and then building an album around it — could have gone very wrong. It could easily have ended up an indulgent or pompous concept album, or it might have veered toward abstraction, missing the moment or clumsily searching for a purpose. Instead its melancholy hooks find a home in these faded sketches of an imaginary place. Or as they sing during a particularly wistful moment, these are ‘old photographs, negatives of nowhere towns’. Full of spectres of life, the fictions of Coral Island are somehow all too real.
As well as the haunting visions of Coral Island itself, there are repeated echoes of popular music history in the album too. Rich harmonies fill the cracks where the weeds grow through Coral Island’s funfair walls. The textures are built up by their recall of musical styles of bygone eras. Without ever feeling backward-looking, the tracks whisk together a wide range of references. These are crafted songs that recall timeless moments of the musical past — as is in-keeping with the album theme. It is full of intertextuality without feeling hackneyed. Instead, this drawing on the musical past seems only to complement the album’s narrative and haunting themes.
In a refined form, there is also much of The Coral’s own sound here too. The Coral Island imagery seems to have provided an anchor for the band’s song writing and a vehicle to bring out some of their strongest elements. At no point does it feel like the songs are having to bend to the theme. The theme drives the album along, giving it purpose and focus. Coral Island seems to provide the band with a fitting home for their sound. It’s now 19 years since The Coral’s classic debut, nearly two decades of creative activity later and the sonic world-making of Coral Island, their tenth album (excluding a couple of acoustic reworkings), seems to have revitalised the band. This collection may echo the past, but it does so with a renewed purpose.
Bringing these ghosts to life has, counterintuitively perhaps, brought a vitality to the creative process. There are rare moments where the album gets a little too close to the thing being parodied, such as the slightly off-kilter closing track. Yet, we should perhaps be approaching these not as songs but as a part of something closer to a film soundtrack. A soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist.
A very short spoken-word snippet at the conclusion of the album reveals that ‘Coral Island has gone beyond a ghost town, to a purgatory’. And so this record is more than just an echo of a dilapidated nowhere-town set to music. Social dilapidation is in here too. Experiencing the world as largely distant spectres, The Coral have found a tone to capture these ghostly times. This run-down place has provided a vessel to express something of the moment. As a musical apparition, Coral Island is not escapism. It is rather a scenic journey through the sonic tensions of the present. By playing with visions of an imagined past and evoking a sense of something that has been lost, Coral Island is full of ghosts of the present.