The debut from one of the UK's most justifiably hyped new R&B artists hits the U.S.
More than a few U.S. viewers who watched Danny Boyle's opening ceremonies for the London 2012 Olympics may have come away with some misconceptions about the congruence between U.S. and UK pop culture. Despite the inclusion of a few acts that never hit the U.S. charts — for instance, glam rockers Mud represented in the survey of Brit teen culture and UK hip-hop star Dizzee Rascal appearing live — the casual American music fan could be forgiven for thinking our pop cultures evolved along roughly the same lines. "Hey Jude" is just as beloved in Boise as in Liverpool, right?
One crack in this illusory cultural homogeneity is that one of the UK's biggest breakout stars of the last year or so -- with two top 20 solo hits, a string of high profile "featured" performances for other artists, a number one album, a Brit Awards Critics' Choice award, an opening spot on a Coldplay tour, and an endorsement from Simon Cowell to her name -- gave the night's most moving performance. Then again, most U.S. viewers never saw it. Accompanying the Akram Khan-choreographed tribute to victims of the 7/7 London bombing, Scottish R&B singer-songwriter Emeli Sandé contributed a spare, beautiful rendition of the hymn "Abide With Me". Ostensibly tailoring the Olympic broadcast for a U.S. audience, NBC pre-empted the tribute in the U.S. broadcast for yet another interview with amphibian-American Michael Phelps. The UK and U.S. press alike have rightly criticized this move for its obnoxious, myopic nationalism. But on a much smaller level, it's also a shame that so many Americans missed out on discovering Sandé, whose fine debut Our Version of Events quietly came out stateside in June, four months after its release in the UK.
Given her eye-catching, skyward-reaching tuft of bleached hair, her early collaborations with grime artists, and the club velocity of the "Funky Drummer" sample that drives her glorious 2011 debut single "Heaven", it's tempting to attribute Sandé's relatively slow start in the States to something about her that's intrinsically "British" or out-of-step with U.S. tastes. Yet on Our Version of Events Sandé most often plays the traditionalist. Despite the opening jolt of "Heaven" and a few other anomalies, sturdy piano-based balladry is the backbone of the album. Which is not to say that, should she catch on, we'll be inundated with stories about Sandé's retro "authenticity" as we were for, say, Adele (with whom Sandé shares a first name, omitted professionally to avoid confusion). Aside from a Stax backbeat and horns on "Next to Me", the traditionalism on Our Version of Events comes more from reliable pop and R&B song structures than era-evoking window dressing. Aside from some ingenious frills, like the "Boys of Summer" seagull guitars on "My Kind of Love", the arrangements and production don't strain themselves to keep your attention, and they don't have to; Sandé knows the heart of great pop is a chorus that follows you to bed at night and greets you in the morning.
She also stays relatively conservative in her subject matter. With its massive orchestral backing, junglist groove, and Beyoncéan octave jumps at the end of each line, "Heaven" is an opening curveball from a stylistic standpoint. But it sets the thematic stage for an album preoccupied with staying on the straight and narrow while negotiating the realities of life: "Oh, Heaven, I wake with good intentions / But the day it always lasts too long". Sometimes there are clear-cut moral solutions; devoted love is the answer on "Where I Sleep" and "Lifetime", and a blue-collar couple finds inspiration in each other after a hard workday on "Mountains". The days last just a little too long on "Daddy", on which a dangerously no-good boyfriend proves addictive; "Clown", about the risks and self-abasement of public performance; and "Maybe" and "Suitcase", which capture relationships in states of collapse. As for "Breaking the Law"? If it's for the right person, perhaps it's not out of the question. And what if "My Kind of Love" is the desperate, unrequited kind that's just waiting for the moment that "the friends you thought you had haven't stuck around"?
This is lovely thematic unity, which comes close to making Our Version of Events a satisfying album experience rather than just a series of songs that are largely easy-to-love. Unfortunately, by the time Sandé finishes up with "Hope", an unusually cloying, overreaching secular prayer co-written with Alicia Keys, ballad fatigue has already set in. The American release tries to mitigate the sluggish pacing by cutting the UK closer, "Read All About It, Pt. III", a solo voice and piano version of a Professor Green UK hit that featured Sandé, and adding a tossed-off Naughty Boy collaboration, "Wonder", earlier in the tracklisting, but this adjustment swaps a fairly strong slow song for a weak fast one. Besides, the album still includes nine ballads out of 14 songs. With the more swift-footed "Heaven", "Daddy", and "Next to Me" as particular standouts, Our Version of Events suffers without a few more in that vein.