After years of working her way up through the UK’s underground music scene, building her reputation via high-profile collaborations with the likes of Wiley, Chipmunk, Tinie Tempah, Professor Green and Devlin, Glaswegian singer-songwriter Emeli Sande finally released her massively anticipated debut album Our Version of Events.
She first emerged as a buzzworthy new artist almost three years ago when she popped up on the chorus of Chipmunk’s top ten hit “Diamond Rings” before later guesting on a string of hit singles and highly-rated album tracks from an emerging generation of homegrown superstar rappers.
In amongst all that, Sande signed a major label record deal, penned music for some of the UK’s biggest popstars and accumulated massive hype and a reputation that preceded her. Having waited patiently, she finally got her chance last year and stepped up, becoming a household name in the process.
The release of Our Version of Events follows a brilliant breakthrough year for Sande in 2011, which all began with the release of her outstanding debut single “Heaven” in August. Built around a drum loop from James Brown‘s frequently sampled “Funky Drummer”, “Heaven” was and remains a tour-de-force pop anthem, and the perfect record to set off one of the most anticipated UK albums of recent times. Perhaps the most timeless song on the project, it reached #2 in the UK singles chart and is already viewed as somewhat of a modern classic, having graced most critics and music fans’ best of 2011 lists.
If “Heaven”, the album opener, is the highlight then what follows might be its biggest disappointment. Churlish as it might sound, one of the album’s biggest failings lies with some curious mixing decisions.
Track two on Our Version of Events, “My Kind of Love” should’ve been a major highlight: Sande has said it’s her favourite track to perform live and onstage it sounds phenomenal – big and storming and full of emotion. On the album though, the song is lost in a sea (or perhaps cave) of reverb, with an effect on Sande’s vocals presumably intended to make them sound big and ethereal, but which ultimately renders them strangely flat. Gone is the urgent, passionate forcefulness of the live rendition, replaced instead with booming dullness and wasted potential.
“My Kind of Love” is by no means the album’s only misstep – on occasion Sande allows herself to drift into cloying “Heal The World”-esque sentiment, most particularly on “Hope”, which was co-written and produced by R&B royalty Alicia Keys. Keys has been effusive in her praise of Sande, and whilst the co-sign is both meaningful and noteworthy, this collaboration between the pair is just the wrong side of trite. Every now and then the album slips into blandness and suffers as a result of it – a track like “Lifetime” for example is almost entirely indistinguishable from pop chart fare of recent years.
With that said, barring the odd occasional lapse, when Sande is on form, she is immense. On the aforementioned “Heaven”, as on second single “Daddy” (a chilling thesis on addiction) her songwriting is at its sharpest.
“Breaking The Law” is another highlight – the stripped-back production allows Sande’s vocals to take centre-stage, and while she never takes them to the soaring heights of her singles, her control and quiet resolve reflect the subject matter.
In fact, quiet but steadfast love and dedication appears to be a recurring theme throughout the album, and Sande writes well about the subject, frequently dismissing flashy shows of affection in favour of something less boisterous but more powerful.
There can be no doubt that Emeli Sande is a colossal talent with the skills and songs to become an international superstar. When she’s on-form, as she is two-thirds of the time here, she is perhaps the UK’s best songwriter, capable of writing exceptional music with genuine substance and gravity. That ability combined with a top-tier voice makes Sande far-and-away the UK’s most exciting new talent.
On Our Version of Events however, there’s just one too many flashes of playing-it-safe blandness and saccharine sentiment, the likes of which are beneath her. Perhaps it was complacency or perhaps it was to provide some balance, but it’s those songs which hold this album back from greatness. What is clear enough though is that Sande is here to stay. I’m looking forward to album #2.