Emeli Sandé’s debut single ‘Heaven’ was a big urban dance tune last summer, and the path to debut album ‘Our version of events’ has been a long one. A mildly disappointed Holly Combe ponders the largely middle of the road results, and finds herself musing on the nature of celebrity and experiences as products
Having a first solo single compared to Massive Attack’s ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ is a tough accolade to live up to. Written by the brilliant Shara Nelson and sometimes described as one of the greatest songs of all time there isn’t honestly a lot that could even come close to that classic. However, as songs with starkly clear influences go, Emeli Sandé’s bass-driven ‘Heaven’, with its “clattering 1990s drum loops”, is a strong enough song in its own right to be able to live through such grand comparisons. The lyrics are interesting too, highlighting the competing concerns of ambition, authenticity and goodness. It was a big tune last summer and its instantly recognisable percussive style is presumably where the “trip hop” tag comes from on Emeli’s Wikipedia page.
And that’s the first sticking point. The debut album Our Version of Events (written by Emeli and produced by her creative partner, Shahid ‘Naughty Boy’ Khan) does not sound like a release from a dance-orientated or urban act. Aside from the slightly edgier and dramatic ‘Daddy’, none of it seems to come from the Emeli who wrote ‘Heaven’, composed ‘Diamond Rings’ for Chipmunk and collaborated with rappers such as Professor Green on ‘Kids That Love to Dance’ and Wiley for a modern take on White Town’s ‘Your Woman’. It turns out that most of the songs are middle of the road ballads showcasing the kind of highly competent but play-it-safe songwriting one might expect from the Emeli who has written for Susan Boyle and Leona Lewis and is Simon Cowell’s favourite songwriter.
Our Version is, of course, Emeli’s album in her own right and the fact she is clearly much more than just a performer who sings other people’s songs (“I always knew I wanted to be a musician, and I always knew I wanted to write…because the people I was listening to all wrote”), makes it worth checking out. However, there is also a sense that the initial marketing of her as a solo artist has been targeted at an audience not necessarily interested in her material in the first instance. This is something a review on the FACT website rather aptly describes as “a bait-and-switch” approach.
The press release for Our Version seems to reflect this effort to have mainstream appeal in a culture where experiences are played out as if they are must-have products: “There are songs to sing in the shower, tracks to fall in love to and compositions to accompany you when heartbroken and drowning yourself in Chardonnay… [It is] credible without attempting to be too ‘cool’, heartbroken yet crazy in love, it is considered without trying to be too clever.” This is rather off putting.
Still, Emeli makes for an intriguing figure in terms of her background. First, there is her much-publicised training in medicine that she gave up to pursue her music career, nonetheless still leaving with honours in Clinical Neurological Science – though, as a BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat article indicates, it’s not unfair to say that most pop stars don’t have that kind of knowledge. Secondly, her choice of heroines seems to suggest possible feminist leanings: she has Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s face tattooed on her right forearm and Virginia Woolf’s Un cuarto propio on her left – a Spanish translation of A Room of One’s Own that she had inked during a medical elective in Spain. In a BBC Radio 4 Front Row interview with John Wilson, Emeli cites rawness and honesty (stated aims for her own songwriting) to be among the things she loves about the work of these women.
Though such rawness doesn’t come across in the polished Our Version…, it’s clear that Emeli is a woman of talent as well as drive. Having written songs since childhood, her success began when, aged 15, she was filmed by her sister singing one of her own songs at the piano. This performance was sent to BBC Radio 1 and she became one of the winners of Trevor Nelson’s Urban Music competition. This led to record deal offers and, though tempted, Emeli decided to
concentrate on her studies. In a quote on the Brits site, she explains:
“Doing the rounds of labels, I just didn’t like it. I just thought, I’d rather be a bit more in control than this… It would have been too much of a risk to say no to medicine then go down to London and just be another singer.”
There are hints of such creative conflicts and self-searching possibly being examined in the lyrics of ‘Heaven’ (“Something’s gone inside me, and I can’t get it back” and, later, “You’re not gonna like me, I’m nothing like before”) when, in another article, Emeli says:
“I grew so much as a musician without the pressure of London… When you come down here, it’s so fast and competitive that sometimes you can kind of get caught up with trying to win all the time and your music suffers for that.”
Emeli’s current success has been brewing for over two years now. There were mentions of her in the media in August 2009 when, at 22 and having just completed her fourth year at medical school, she was signed up to EMI, alongside plans, at the time, to release ‘Daddy’ independently. To her credit, this decision was taken in order to be “in a stronger position to say what type of music I do and I can choose who I want to be with”.
Fast forward to the debut album and it is ‘Daddy’ that arguably has the most potential to hit darker deeper places. Sounding, on first listen, like it might be a story about an abusive parent, it is actually said to be an ode to addiction, with Emeli framing ‘Daddy’ as a metaphor for “that one thing you keep returning to. I’ve seen how easy and acceptable addiction can be in this industry. It’s kind of scary.” The drums in the opening segment of this song, combined with the dramatic chimes give a retro soul vibe ideally suited to a film soundtrack. Using “Daddy” as a symbol of dominion is discomforting but it’s a compelling track.
Another song with a little more tempo to it is Emeli’s current hit ‘Next to Me’. Still firmly in the accessible vein of the bulk of the album, this cheerful and perfectly formed pop song, with its stomping piano and sweeping chorus, stands out as an obvious choice for a single. The lyrics suggest it could be about a supportive and modest partner and Emeli’s explanation that she wrote it with a desire to “speak of love and loyalty” and to “celebrate good men” seems to lend weight to that interpretation – though she retains some ambiguity by also suggesting it could be about God. However, the press release sidelines all this and claims Emeli says “it was written about her No.1 love; music.” Either way, it all works extremely well and makes for a more memorable song than ‘Lifetime’ where the lyrics skirt a little too close to Hallmark platitudes for comfort.
Much of the rest of the album seems to be mainly comprised of emotionally sugary pop tracks that seem bound to be performed by the finalists on X-Factor. There is a high love song quotient, with the formula beginning to drag a little by the time the break-up themed ‘Maybe’ and ‘Suitcase’ come in back-to-back. It’s a shame that the rather gorgeous acoustic versions of ‘Easier in Bed’ and ‘Kill the Boy’ weren’t included on the album instead.
Despite this, things do pick up again. My personal favourite when it comes to the slower tracks is ‘Hope’ (co-written with Alicia Keys). Here I’d say Emeli tips from respectable safe balladry into something more obvious and bold. The rather trite world peace theme means it arguably isn’t the strongest track lyrically but it has a striking tune and this actually compliments those lyrics to almost daringly kitsch effect. This makes for a wistful and earnest torch song that, true to the press release, is indeed perfect for singing in the shower. Next stop Glee perhaps?
Lyrically, there are two tracks on Our Version… that stand out. The first is ‘Clown’, where we see more of the quality demonstrated in ‘Heaven’ and ‘Daddy’. Emeli has said: “This is about the industry and the struggle to get into it. But I was also thinking about Jeremy Kyle’s show a lot when I wrote that – how we kind of laugh at these people on our TV screens who are desperate enough to go on and talk about their problems.”
Despite its less enduring melody, this explanation adds an interesting layer of meaning to ‘Clown’, with lines such as “I could stop and answer all of your questions/As soon as I find out how I can move from the back of the line” potentially raising issues of class and inequality. Perhaps Emeli is suggesting that people should stop and think before judging others who feel compelled to offer up their problems on television for other people’s entertainment?
Another thought-provoking track on the album is ‘Read All About It (part III)’. This is a continuation of Emeli’s collaboration with Professor Green on the original ‘Read All About it” and is where the title Our Version of Events comes from:
“…We’d done so many shows together and I’d heard how personal the song was for him. But I thought, ‘What does the song mean to me – what’s my interpretation of it?’ And this is it.”
The Professor Green version is arguably not as strong as Our Version‘s grand finalé. This original may have all the marks of an anthem with its strings and dramatic production but it is Emeli’s lyrics in part three that give it power and a new lease of life:
“You’ve got the words to change a nation but you’re biting your tongue
You’ve spent a lifetime stuck in silence afraid you’ll say something wrong
If no one ever hears it, how we gonna learn your song?”
There is a sense of solidarity, as Emeli sings that “It’s ’bout time we got some airplay of our version of events” and asks “…when did we all get so fearful?”
Hearing such a rabble-rousing urge to the oppressed, under-represented, struggling and disenfranchised to stand up and be heard makes the more seemingly conservative elements of Emeli’s appeal and rise to fame all the more frustrating. Indeed, it seems that another unpalatable fact of life for musicians in the UK is the pressure to embrace the establishment.
For example, Emeli won the Brits Critics Choice award in February and, like Ellie Goulding (the winner in 2010, who sang at last year’s royal wedding and went on to gush to Glamour magazine in July last year: “I’m a huge fan of Will and Kate. I love the royals!”), her success has led to some royal attention. In Emeli’s case, this has been due to her appointment as a Prince’s Trust charity ambassador and she has been quoted saying that a very brief conversation with Prince Charles was “definitely inspiring.”
While it’s true that the Prince’s Trust has helped a lot of young people start their own businesses and there’s nothing to say a pop star can’t be a Royalist anyway, the uncomfortable truth seems to be that getting involved in anything associated with the highest echelons of power in this country means one is obliged to play a particular game. Certainly, there doesn’t seem to be any room for monarchism to be challenged when one is embroiled in such a framework.
Such constraints are probably nothing new but the thought that they are still such a powerful force in British life, even in a post-punk 21st century society, is a sobering one. The possibility this might be happening to creative people who may well have had to live outside of mainstream nine-to-five culture when trying to build their careers suggests that there continues to be much work to be done in terms of challenging the system. Increasingly, the areas of work that surely require inspiration, spontaneity and non-conformity are being subjected to the rules of business. Creative workers, much like activists and knowledge-workers, are being reduced to their own “selling points” and squeezed into boxes. The future for music, art and culture seems bleak.
Perhaps this is part of what Emeli is alluding to when she sings in ‘Where I Sleep’, “I’ve said all of my goodbyes to ego” and in ‘Clown’ – “I’m selling out tonight”. Just like the people who expose their lives and troubles on Jeremy Kyle and, indeed, all of us as we try to navigate our way through an increasingly elitist and dehumanising landscape, who can blame her?
Images courtesy of EMI music