As if the title and the ballet dancer pose on the cover weren’t a giveaway, Rachel Sage’s latest album finds the acclaimed singer-songwriter taking inspiration from her love of dance. Musically “choreographic” is an album of lush, sophisticated chamber pop adorned with traces of folk and rock. It’s not “dance music” in the most obvious sense, but every song here is infused with a wonderful sense of movement and poise, and the music flows with the grace and precision of a carefully choreographed dance. This coupled with Sage’s characteristically intelligent songwriting and lyrical poetry makes for an enticing, engrossing listen.
“Heaven (Is a Grocery Clerk)” opens the album with a playful piano melody that trills and flits about like a ballet dancer, while the warm, sweeping string accompaniment pulls and pushed back and forth like an elegant ballroom duo. Sage’s silky, plaintive voice is full of yearning as she sings about all her longings and desires, but there’s also a laughing quality to her vocal phrasing, as though she’s secretly embarrassed by her confessions. The ornate piano work gives the song a springtime hopefulness that calls to mind Regina Spektor and Ellie Goulding without being as sappy or pretentious as either. The rather baffling title and the equally confusing funk guitar that appears out of nowhere halfway through the song reveal that Sage is capable of being totally honest and teasingly obscure in the same breath.
Sage’s songs have a lyrical storytelling quality that adds to the ballet comparison but also hearkens back to the troubadour traditions of Bob Dylan, to whom Sage has often been compared. Tracks like the gorgeous, swaying “Loreena” or the western-flavoured “I’ve Been Waiting” are also reminiscent of the alt-folk/country of Neko Case. Sage’s voice doesn’t have the knockout power of Case’s but she shares her ability to paint complex, emotive pictures of people and relationships that feel fully lived-in and real. “Loreena” concerns a girl who most people view as an angel but Sage sees in a decidedly more personal, complicated light, while “Clear Today” is a breakup song with a painfully clear sense of conflicting emotions.
Sage knows how to work wonders with just a piano, strings and some basic folk percussion but she can also embellish her songs with unexpected sounds and ideas when needed. The infectious single “Try Try Try” features everything from brass and classic rock organ to flashy guitar solos without ever feeling crowded or overstuffed. A singing, sassy violin and Sage’s spectacular vocals trade melodies like dance partners while tossing out inspired, off the cuff phrases like “he turned my pages like a pirouette” or “You’ll own keys to every room inside/My haunted house o’ magic in the dark” as though it’s the easiest thing in the world. Towards the end of the album Sage shows on the achingly sad “7 Angels” that she can melt hearts with nothing but an acoustic guitar, a cello and her trembling, captivating voice.
“Choreographic” is Rachael Sage at her very best, delivering heartfelt, emotionally complex storytelling wrapped up in exquisitely pretty music. It’s testament to her skill as an artist that she can combine so many ideas and such intensity into music that sounds so simple, elegant and refined. Sage’s love for her craft is plain to see, as are all her joys, hurts, longings and dreams. It’s this ability to lay herself bare is such startlingly beautiful fashion that ultimately makes “Choreographic” one of the best releases of 2016 so far.