x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Our Version of Events: not a classic, but a taste of what's to come

Emeli Sandé's hotly anticipated debut album is lacking in originality, but it successfully showcases the rising young star's embryonic talent.

Emeli Sandé has been compared to Alicia Keys and Leona Lewis. 
Hayley Madden / Redferns
Emeli Sandé has been compared to Alicia Keys and Leona Lewis. Hayley Madden / Redferns

Her soulful voice is powerful and supple. Simon Cowell called her his "favourite songwriter of the minute", then tapped her talents for the last Susan Boyle album. With her gravity-defying, peroxide blonde quiff, she cuts quite a distinctive figure.

The only potential handicap to chart success? The name on her birth certificate (which is Adele Emeli Sandé, since you ask).

Not that this ambitious singer-songwriter let it hold her back. "I changed it as soon as Adele came out. I just thought, 'You've kind of taken the name now', so I went with my middle name," she explains. Which is how "Emeli Sandé" became the hottest name to drop in British pop.

But does her debut album - due later this month - fulfil the waterfall of promise she's already shown?

Emeli Sandé first made a splash back in 2009, when she sang on Diamond Rings, a top 10 hit for British rapper Chipmunk. But this young Scottish performer - raised in Aberdeenshire by her Zambian father and English mother - was no mere session singer. She also co-wrote the track, having devised its hook, improbably, while cleaning her bedroom.

However, while Diamond Rings introduced pop fans to her soulful vocal tones, the singer herself remained largely anonymous. Sandé doesn't appear in the Diamond Rings video - not because the director exhibited any quiff-based prejudice, but rather that the shoot clashed with a statistics exam she had to sit.

At the time, Sandé was a full-time medical student at the University of Glasgow. She actually completed three years of a degree specialising in clinical neuroscience before devoting herself to music.

It wasn't an easy choice. Discussing her decision in a recent interview, Sandé remembers thinking, "I can't go down to London and have this not work. There's no point being an average artist or making music that's [merely] OK. There was this anxiety. I had this responsibility to make sure it wasn't a waste of a medical career."

This sense of responsibility led to rapid progress. A year after Diamond Rings, Sandé guested on another top 10 hit - Never Be Your Woman by grime pioneer Wiley - and became a songwriter. Her music has since been recorded by artists as diverse as Cheryl Cole, Alesha Dixon and Tinie Tempah.

But if there were fears that Sandé could become pigeonholed - as a guest vocalist and songwriter for hire, albeit a highly successful one - she shattered them with her first solo release. The stunning Heaven rivals Lana Del Rey's Video Games as the great breakthrough single of 2011. It is a song where trip-hop meets gospel, one that sets Sandé's lightning-bolt vocals over 1990s-style breakbeats and luxuriant strings.

"It's about growing up and realising you can't always be perfect, but what counts is knowing you could have done better - your intention to improve is what counts," Sandé explains. The British record-buying public was convinced, sending Heaven to number two on the charts last July.

Sandé capitalised on its success immediately. She scored her first number one when she sang on Read All About It, a pop-rap track by Professor Green. Daddy, another striking trip-hop-style production, became her second solo hit. She even supported Coldplay on their European arena tour.

So it was no shock when she topped off a stellar 2011 by collecting the Critics' Choice award from the British Record Industry Trust. Previous winners of this prestigious prize - designed to boost the careers of up-and-coming UK artists - include Florence and the Machine, Jessie J and Sandé's sometime namesake, Adele.

The upshot? Our Version of Events now arrives amid considerable anticipation from the singer's fans, from her label and from the UK record industry at large. Can Emeli Sandé become the next British female artist to achieve significant international success?

Remarkably, she doesn't seem cowed by expectation. In fact, she's almost encouraging it. Sandé recently said that she wants her album to become a classic like Amy Winehouse's Back to Black or Joni Mitchell's Blue. "My intention when I was writing this record is that anyone can relate to it. I don't want to be limited to a time or a place in my music," she explains in her official biography.

Ultimately, she succeeds in part. Sandé deserves credit for shooting high, but Our Version of Events is no classic. Nor is it the collection of up-tempo trip-hop nuggets that its singles suggested it might be. It is, however, an accomplished and very listenable debut album whose appeal should be broad.

Its default setting is the contemporary romantic soul ballad. Comparisons to Leona Lewis and Alicia Keys are inevitable and far from unjustified. A slow-building anthem called Mountains was originally intended for the former, while the heartfelt Hope was actually written with the latter.

That's because Alicia Keys is another high-profile Emeli Sandé fan. At the end of last year, she declared the Scotswoman her "favourite new artist" and invited her to New York so they could write together.

Recalls Sandé: "Because we both play piano, it made it much more of a natural process. "I don't write with other people very well in general, so it was really cool to find someone that I like to write with. And it was even better that the person happened to be someone I've loved since I was a teenager!"

Keys and Sandé apparently penned several songs together, but Hope is the only one to appear on Our Version of Events. However, the American singer's influence is felt throughout, particularly on the album's closing track.

Here Sandé reinvents Read All About It - her chart-topping collaboration with Professor Green - as a stripped back piano ballad. It's a nice idea, and stylishly executed, but Keys did this first with her Jay-Z-free version of Empire State of Mind.

This is indicative of the record's twin deficiencies: a slight lack of originality, and an over-reliance on ballads. However, it would be unfair to say that Sandé shows no range at all.

Suitcase has a lovely countryish twang that was apparently inspired by Dolly Parton. The piano-powered pop-gospel of Next to Me should have Elton John on the phone demanding a duet. And Breaking the Law shows Sandé can be just as compelling accompanied solely by an acoustic guitar.

Yet at times, Our Version of Events does slip onto vapid ground. Sandé is a Joni Mitchell fan, so she should know better than to name a song River unless she can give it some lyrics that are more illuminating than these: "I'll be your river, river / Yeah, I'll do the running for you."

Fortunately, the odd bland patch is countered by more interesting moments like Daddy, a "dark ode to addiction", or Clown, which offers a sardonic take on the artist versus label relationship. "I'd be smiling if I wasn't so desperate," Sandé sings candidly, before concluding: "I'm selling out tonight."

However, the album's most memorable lyrics appear on a break-up ballad called Maybe. Its string-swaddled production is suitably dramatic, but it's Sandé's talent for scene-setting that really stands out here.

"When we first moved in together, [we] couldn't keep hands off each other," she sings on the opening line. "Now we're lying back to back, and [there's] silence in the black." Instantly, she brings the listener smack into the middle of the situation.

Moments like this suggest a lustrous future for Emeli Sandé. Her "classic album" banter could turn out to be more than rising star bravado. After all, how many artists achieve this at the first attempt, at just 24 years of age? Joni Mitchell was three years older - and three albums more experienced - when she released Sandé's beloved Blue.

Nick Levine is a freelance music journalist based in London.