When the BRIT Awards hailed Jessie J as the Critic’s Choice of 2011, many hoped that her debut album would be packed full of pop gems as brash, feisty and uncompromising as Do It Like A Dude. What they got instead was a record steeped in introspective vocal workouts in the vein of Who You Are. And only a year later, history looks set to repeat itself.
Emeli Sandé’s debut single Heaven showed an artist already at the top of her game – in its Massive Attack-accented beats and sweeping elegance, it was the kind of universally brilliant pop record that proved that in a market already saturated with female solo stars, there was room for one more. But those hoping for an album of Heavens will be sorely disappointed – like Jessie before her, Sandé’s album is over-sold by the quality of its singles, and is instead filled with bland, samey mid-tempo numbers.
Make no mistake, Sandé’s talent is without doubt; her voice, faultless. Indeed, it’s more than that, it’s world-class. Deep, resonant, deftly commanded – but never indulgently so – Sandé’s voice is the glue that binds Our Version Of Events together. It sits perfectly amidst the production, and on this level at least, the album succeeds. The record is consistently beautiful, but it is a beauty that so often is only skin-deep.
Figure-heading the album, Heaven remains achingly gorgeous – the chorus a piece of emotion-teasing prettiness that calls out for better days to come – no wonder it was selected as one of the tracks to see in the New Year alongside the London fireworks, it plays as a heart-warming tonic to every aspersion of doom and gloom forecast on the daily news.
The album’s highlights are few and far between, and it is really only on the forceful, darkly sinister Daddy that Sandé really achieves everything Heaven set her up to be. The inherent sense of foreboding menace in the track’s chorus as Sandé purrs “Put it in your pocket, don’t tell anyone I gave ya… It can be your daddy, if you take it gladly” is tantalisingly powerful as it wraps itself around a tale of bleak romantic woe. Sandé accents the lyrics with the kind of subtle nuance and shades of knowing that a lesser singer could only dream of and the mind is left reeling with the possibilities of what else she could turn her hand to when operating at this, the fullest of her capabilities.
But it’s a rare flash of vibrancy in a sea of grey – strummed acoustic ballad Breaking The Law sounds like b-side material, included almost as if only to make-up the running time. On Hope Sandé dips into Mariah-esque R&B, but again it lacks any of the deftly-wrought hooks that make Heaven and Daddy such enchanting showpieces. The music-hall piano chords and underpinning old-time Motown grooves of Next To Me come as a much-needed venture into up-tempo, but for all its soulfulness, it lacks a real sense of vitality.
Our Version Of Events’ chief fault is its lacking sense of adventure. So many of the tracks blur namelessly into a vast entity of piano and string section dinner-date dullness. Strip away the vocals and beats from the likes of Clown Or River and you could be listening to the lulled refrains of a TV show soundtrack– the music becomes a non-substance, a half-formed entity that has faltered in playing it safe.
It all ends up sounding rather like a Leona Lewis album – a thing of over-considered, commercialised intent. Our Version Of Events is presented to the listener as the product of record company executives, a precision-moulded sales-driving exercise. And so it remains ultimately an attempt of unrealised ambition. Emeli Sandé – the singer, the songwriter, the star – is already there, ready to claim her crown at the BRIT Awards ceremony. But in terms of matching up to her true potential, Our Version Of Events falls well short of the mark.