When Emeli Sandé first broke onto the British pop charts back in 2009, she was just one of many soulful singers finding success working with hip-hop artists. That success came with a prominent feature on the rapper Chipmunk’s “Diamond Rings”. That was ten years ago and compared to what you hear on her newest album Real Life, her early work is certainly of its time. The track made its way up to number six on the UK charts and its producer Naughty Boy decided to feature Sandé on his 2010 track “Never Be Your Woman”, which also ended up cracking the top ten. Sandé would feature on a few other songs, in the lead up to her proper debut; 2012’s Our Version of Events, but none of those tracks would be much of a success outside the UK. On that album, Sandé again teamed up with Naughty Boy, but this time knowingly distanced herself from the pop-grime features that had made her famous and steered directly into maximum-exposure territory. As a result, Our Version of Events is a very formulaic pop record but unfortunately also one with significant mixing issues.
It didn’t matter; Our Version of Events debuted at number one and led to Sandé being the Critic’s Choice at the Brit Awards, as well as being featured during the Opening and Closing ceremonies for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Her single “Next To Me” even managed to crack the Billboard Hot 100 in America. Emeli Sandé had proven that she could be a bonafide pop singer-songwriter – one that could be both sultry and confidently sweet. As successful as it was, the pop landscape has changed a lot since 2012, and by any measure, that album sounds dated when listening to it today. On her follow-up, 2016’s Long Live The Angels, Sandé would try to apply her mass-appeal songwriting to a more spiritually-focused album with diminishing returns. A year later, on 2017’s Kingdom Coming EP, Sandé shifted her focus towards her Zambian ancestry, something she dabbled with on her last release. Kingdom Coming has no doubt been her strongest outing so far but still did not make much of a dent on her sales figures. With this year’s Real Life, Sandé tried to have the best of both worlds, utilising what she’s learned since her debut, but falling back on some of the same bad habits.
Besides showcasing a true raw vocal talent, Emeli Sandé’s new album does a couple of things right. First of all, she trimmed the album down to just less than 45 minutes, a manageable length for a pop album. She also managed to make an album that flirts with more eccentric instrumentation than her debut. Her songs are flourished with organ interplay that helps to elevate the more boring cuts. Subtle horns are used on “Love To Help” that don’t actually come in until the very end and are almost lost in the mix but help to bring in more of quiet resolution to the song’s neo-soul flirtations. Despite all this, Sandé still likes to employ an orchestra, the same way she did on previous albums. On some tracks like “Sparrow” it works to embellish her songs with a bit more gravitas and even contribute towards the melody of the drawn-out chorus. But on most songs, like “Human” and “Honest”, it contributes to the long lineage of schmaltzy singer-songwriter cuts where the strings completely overshadow any promising aspect of the structure.
The best tracks here, “Survivor”, “Shine” and “Extraordinary Being”, are also the biggest. They are exuberant, providing a much-needed reprieve from the somber and flat “Real Life” and “Free As A Bird”. On “Shine”, the soft strings play against an infectious drum beat that leads up to a huge chorus. The song is well crafted and lets her voice soar, but Sandé avoids flexing and only hits the high notes when she needs, her voice interspersed with a quiet, twinkling piano. What makes both of those songs so effective is their vagueness; “you’ve got to let love, shine through,” and “you’re an extraordinary being,” aren’t exactly cryptic, but they do ride the line of familiarity and inspiration; enough that they could mean anything without being necessarily spelled out to the listener.
Real Life feels caught in the middle, like Sandé couldn’t commit completely to her new style and still leans a little too hard on the technique used so extensively on her first two albums. But more than that Sandé suffers from the same issue that plagued both Our Version of Events and Long Live The Angels; her lyricism. Now, Sandé is great at writing her songs and the vast majority of them are catchy, but whatever she’s writing is consistently diminished by the lyrical content. Given the anxious state of the world, her intention to re-energise people is commendable, but the writing on this album is exactly the same as her previous efforts and those albums could just as easily been described as “hopeful”.
In the age of Trump and Brexit, it’s hard not to have an opinion one way or the other, and to see such a promising musician write with such offputtingly banal lyrics, especially when she is trying to make an impression, is a shame. Unfortunately, after listening to the album, it simply doesn’t leave the kind of lasting impression Sandé is hoping for. One is left wishing that if she did have something to say she would at least say it, instead of binding her songs with some of the oldest clichés in music. Overall, Real Life can be generic and even frustratingly simple, but Emeli Sandé is making progress and this is by far her best studio album so far.
Real Life is released Friday 13th September via Virgin EMI Records.