Emeli Sandé’s name was everywhere back in 2012 when she released her debut album ‘Our Version of Events’. It spent 4 weeks at UK number one and a record 66 consecutive weeks in the UK top 10, selling over 2.25 million copies in the country to date. Now she’s back and looking to reclaim her place in the charts after releasing her sophomore effort ‘Long Live The Angels’ last week.
The album sees the British singer-songwriter embrace her Zambian roots as her talented voice shines bright on another 18 new tracks. It opens with the haunting ‘Selah’, an exposed song that features little more than Sandé’s controlled voice and the harmonies of her backing choir. The spiritual track, written by the singer alone, creates vivid and striking imagery that highlights her talent as a songwriter. It’s a strong opening for ‘Long Live The Angels’ and creates an atmosphere that flows beautifully throughout the rest of the album.
The choir is a familiar presence throughout much of this release with features on tracks like ‘Sweet Architect’, ‘Breathing Underwater’ and ‘Tenderly’, a song which includes vocals by Sandé’s father. The first track in particular really takes the listener to church as she preaches for her sweet architect to build her up, a reference to both a romantic and a spiritual love. At the end of the track Sandé goes silent and leaves the choir to finish it off with their powerful voices; a move which transcends the song to a whole new level. This is much the same in ‘Breathing Underwater’, a slow burner that radiates the freedom of the song’s lyrics through the growing intensity of the music. The building production of the track allows Sandé’s vocals to rise like a phoenix on the beautifully emotive chorus, supported by the powerful harmonies of the choir.
‘Long Live The Angels’ is a far more dramatic effort in comparison to her debut, with a number of the tracks sung with incredible power. This is no clearer than on lead single ‘Hurts’, a fast-paced anthem that spends four minutes clattering around in a surprisingly graceful manner. Atop a backdrop of frantic hand-claps Sandé reveals the pain of past love, her agony lifted like a weight from her shoulders. Nothing is held back.
Other tracks like ‘Give Me Something’ and ‘Shakes’ utilise this same intensity, although with a great deal more subtlety than ‘Hurts’. The former seems to plod along like a simple guitar-led ballad until halfway through when the desperation in Sandé’s voice starts to pierce through the music. As she pleads to ‘give me something I can believe in’, the sense of being a woman lost moves through the lyrics into a fresh, emotive quality in her voice. The latter track ‘Shakes’ isn’t much dissimilar, although it opens as more of a piano-led ballad. With it’s sweeping production the song flows beautifully, especially with the inclusion of the stringed instruments that give the song a more fragile quality. Once again, though, its Sandé’s voice that shines brighter than the music, even with the simplicity of the lyrics. By the climax of the song she sounds as though she’s on the verge of tears, her voice raw and emotive in a way that it’s never been before.
The downside to having so many powerful tracks is that they drown out some of the others through their sheer intensity. In ‘Lonely’ the pace doesn’t pick up enough to propel the song to the same heights as ‘Give Me Something’, despite following a similar structure. It’s attempt to come alive is too short-lived to make it standout, leaving it to pale in comparison. In ‘Happen’ the emotion in Sandé’s voice is not so convincing as on other tracks, the flow of the song too jarred on the pre-chorus. As it moves into the climax it’s hampered by the produced vocals that make Sandé appear more distant than intended. Finally, in ‘Kung-Fu’ the production is too intensive for the level of the vocals, ultimately drowning them out. Although the song is musically dramatic, it feels disjointed and lacks a connection to the vocal intensity, thereby making it one of the more forgettable songs on the album.
Where the album doesn’t get lost in intensity is when it dabbles in new sounds. ‘Babe’, the closing track on the standard edition, is the funkiest piece of music on the record with it’s mid-tempo drumbeats and hand-claps that play atop the electronic backing vocals. The pacing of the song is frantic but tamed, never trying hard to reach a height that it can’t. Likewise, ‘Garden’ sees Sandé take a new approach to her music as she blends urban style with mellow (ocassionally electronic) pop. The warped beat of the track stands out as one of the most unique on the album, although whether that makes it appropriate for ‘Long Lives The Angels’ is a question that’s hard to answer. It’s the only song to feature an artist collaboration as both Jay Electronica and Áine Zion provide vocals on the track, the latter contributing verses reminiscent of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech that was incorporated into Beyoncé’s ‘***Flawless’.
Although standing strong as it’s own album, ‘Long Live The Angels’ is reminiscent of it’s predecessor in parts, such as in ‘High & Lows’. The song is one of the few carefree pop numbers on the record and invites comparison to ‘Next To Me’ from Sandé’s debut. With it’s strong marching beat and blaring chorus, the track is the most fun that the singer has on the entire album, and it shines through in the music. It acts as a pleasant reminder that as much as she is at her best when singing an emotive ballad, her voice can still lend itself beautifully to an upbeat, happy-go-lucky number. ‘I’d Rather Not’ is another song with elements from ‘Our Version of Events’, this track bearing similarities to ‘Maybe’ and Alicia Keys collaboration ‘Hope’. Although more airy and vocally distant, the pacing and beat bear resemblance to the first album’s ballads. Sandé sings with the same restrained manner on the new track as she does on the old, allowing for the odd moment of emotive display to lift the song out of the ashes.
Whilst much of the album is a strong effort, there are two tracks that shine beautifully on ‘Long Live The Angels’, although they do so for different reasons. One of the closing tracks on the standard edition, ‘Every Single Little Piece’, is another of the album’s big production numbers, but where this song differs from those others is the beautiful emotive quality it’s able to convey through more uplifting music, particularly towards the climax. After the song slows down into the bridge, it soars back with such incredible momentum that it sweeps the listener off their feet. Written about being ready to give all of yourself to someone, Sandé throws everything into the track, spreading the song’s message through the music as well as the lyrics, and ultimately creating one big celebration of love. The song even has a nod to her Zambian roots with the inclusion of her backing choir as the music slowly fades out to silence.
The other standout track on the album is ‘Somebody’, one of the songs exclusive to the deluxe edition. Although lyrically sparse in relation to the rest of the album, Sandé’s voice is more emotive and pained than on any other song. In not overly relying on the production to convey the beauty of the track, the vocals are more heart-wrenching and unashamed, creating a piece of music that is both simple yet intricate. Emeli Sandé has never sounded more defiant and proud.
‘Long Live The Angels’ is an album that feels more mature than the last, although slightly less cohesive. It isn’t afraid to venture outside of familiar formulas and sounds to provide a more unique experience for the listener, but that does mean that the occasional song falls flat.
It’s unlikely that this new release will reach the dizzy heights of ‘Our Version of Events’ simply because the recognition that would have propelled the album to the top has waned in the four years that Sandé has been silent. However, that doesn’t mean that ‘Long Live The Angels’ is any less deserving of the same success, or, given the beautiful vocals and musicality of the album, soaring even higher.
*header image taken by Elvert Barnes at https://www.flickr.com/photos/perspective/