Having already forged a short, successful career in songwriting and backing others’ hits, this is Emeli Sandé at last standing up to make her voice heard
SUCH has been the ubiquity of Emeli Sandé as guest vocalist of choice to a procession of the UK’s most commercially successful urban pop artists over the past three years that her own musical personality remains relatively undefined. A handful of biographical details are often repeated – born and raised near Aberdeen to parents from Zambia and England, a student of clinical neuroscience at the University of Glasgow who dropped out in her fourth year to write songs for Susan Boyle and Cheryl Cole – but much of what we know about what she does for a living has been filtered through the lens of such teen-friendly artists as Tinie Tempah and Professor Green.
Clearly a lot of time and effort has been invested to make sure this debut album from the softly-spoken 24-year-old, who was once given the industry-alerting title “Simon Cowell’s favourite songwriter”, gives her the best possible chance of forging a solo career that will force the nation to pay attention. What surprises, though, is just how much a lot of this material diverts from the style in which she made her name and into more adult territory.
The opening track is her best known, last year’s No 2 hit Heaven, which sweeps in on a gust of strings reminiscent of Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy and settles upon a bed of brisk breakbeat. Familiarity aside it’s a dynamic and likable opener, with Sandé’s rich, soul-toned voice nestling alongside the work of producer Shahid Naughty Boy Khan, the other driving force behind this record. As it is the first track, the fact the song’s first line is “will you recognise me?” could not have been more apt.
Things continue in a similarly chart-bound manner for the next couple of songs, with My Kind of Love focusing on a display of vocal gymnastics worthy of Mariah Carey, its lyrical blend of self-pity and rousing, back-on-my-feet-again self-assurance is surely destined for the standby list for X-Factor hopefuls (“When you’ve given up… when you never thought that it could ever get this tough / that’s when you feel my kind of love”).
Where I Sleep is a more relaxed vision of domestic bliss, a song whose threatened blandness can be absolved for Sandé’s warm vocal and a lyric which says a lot about the generation she’s a part of: “I’m from a generation undecided / I’m restless and I can’t go changing things.”
From there, the pace slows right down, the album not so much opening up as entering an introspective furrow for its middle third. This is no bad thing, with the subdued string and piano-led Mountains threatening a breakdown into epic territory which never quite arrives and the piano ballad Clown offering the kind of study in internal tension so commonly heard from the frustrated performer: “I’d be smiling if I wasn’t so desperate / I’d be patient if I had the time / I could stop and answer all of your questions / soon as I find out how I can move from the back of the line”.
Weirdly, in this light, the album’s lyrics are reminiscent of Oasis’ Definitely Maybe. In part, this is a record about wanting to be famous and knowing you’ve got what it takes, largely written while the artist can only imagine themselves in that position. Had Sandé performed these songs as an open mic night unknown – and who knows, perhaps she did? – they would have sounded sad and lonely. As a woman on the cusp of superstardom, the sense of validation in her voice is heartening.
Daddy is Sandé’s second, less well-known single, a kind of Heaven-lite with a compelling lyrical tale of attraction to the wrong man and a briefly up-tempo intervention before the epic bittersweetness of Maybe, another string-laden slice of inoffensive melodrama about a relationship on the verge of either starting up or breaking down. As on the slow, country-tinged guitar and drum snap of break-up ballad Suitcase and the absolute sparsity of love song Breaking the Law, a soft blend of only Sandé’s voice and a whispering guitar, the concerns she expresses and the way she expresses them are precisely as you would expect from a pop balladeer with their eye on the higher reaches of the charts. It’s the compelling honey-softness of her voice and her undoubted skill as an emotive lyrical storyteller that raises these songs above the pack.
The forthcoming single Next to Me is the stand-out track here, a joyous gospel swagger fit to soundtrack new love or a summer’s day, and a first-rate radio song. There are precious few of the latter here – Lifetime is a more turgid example, sandwiched between another rich ballad in River and the penultimate Imagine-meets-Stevie-Wonder anthemics of Hope, featuring Alicia Keys – but then this appears to be an album designed for listening to in solitude rather than with company.
Finally, Our Version of Events ends with Read All About It (Part III), a version of the No 1 hit with Professor Green stripped back to just strings, singer and mournful piano. It seems almost designed to emphasise the fact that yes, this is the real Emeli Sandé we’ve been listening to, and the one we should all recognise in future.