There's plenty to admire about Emeli Sandé's debut album, but the most immediately striking thing, for me, is just how brazenly naked is the use of the "Funky Drummer" beat on the opening track and breakthrough single, "Heaven".
For years, producers have avoided using this most widely sampled of breakbeats, yet here it is, upfront and proud, virtually alone save for a string pad and Sandé's impassioned delivery. It's as if a moratorium has been lifted to enable another generation to capitalise on Clyde Stubblefield's slippery funk shuffle; but its presence confirms that, while Sandé may be a brilliant new talent, she's operating within a territory already exhaustively mapped by previous writer-singers, heir to a tradition that has managed to stifle many such gifted glittering stars.
The most directly applicable influence on Sandé's work is Alicia Keys, who has bestowed her blessing by collaborating here on the song "Hope". Sadly, it's one of the album's weaker efforts, a routine piano ballad recycling the usual bland clichés about hope for the future of mankind etc: already, the tradition's tentacles are coiling around her talent, tugging it into drearily familiar directions. Which is a shame, as Sandé has enough individual character to bring her own colour to the genre. In "Heaven", for instance, she carefully avoids the usual absolutism of R&B, its rote play of good and bad, by acknowledging that what matters are things like the purity of one's intentions, and realising one's fallibility – in short, growing up and taking responsibility, rather than simply taking sides.
This ability to tiptoe between opposing positions brings a pleasing depth and grain to some of her songs. In "Maybe", a crumbling relationship is sketched in scenes from a small drama – the non-sleepers silently back-to-back in bed, the bags waiting by the door, the worried glances in the hallway – while the descending orchestral motif underscores the fatalistic prognosis. The luggage metaphor recurs in "Suitcase", where the abandoned partner's bewilderment is subliminally evoked by the repetitive little nervous breaths added to the rhythm track.
Sometimes, she overplays a lyrical gambit – the circus analogy of "Clown" is taken a bit too far, especially for a sad song, while the curious metaphor of "River" – "If you're too big to follow rivers, how you ever gonna find the sea?" – is simply baffling: too big to follow rivers? How does that work? And what happens when you find the sea, anyway? Thankfully, she's on firmer ground – literally – with the corresponding metaphor of "Mountains", where the delicately descending guitar figure ingeniously brings a vertiginous edge to the theme of ambition.
And dressed in the dark implications of chimes and low strings, "Daddy" offers a particularly impressive analogy for addiction: "Put it in your pocket, don't tell anyone I gave you/It'll be the one you want, the one that saves you/It'll be the daddy". Sandé has the vocal strength and the subtlety of emotional shading to deliver her songs effectively, it's obvious; and if she continues addressing matters in her own distinctive manner, there's no limit to what she can achieve.
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