While Sandé may not hit any highs higher that what we heard on Our Version of Events, Long Live the Angels gives the neo-soul belter plenty of scenery to chew
Long Live the AngelsLabel: Virgin
US Release Date: 2016-11-11
UK Release Date: 2016-11-11
Emeli Sandé prefers monumentalism to subtlety. She's aware of the size of her voice, how it can decimate foundations and then build them back up, so she scales her tracks skyward to accommodate it. Of all the big-screen belters saturating the female pop scene, she may be the most brazenly neo-operatic. Between her lips, lyrics like "I'll be your clown" ("Clown") and "I'll be your river" ("River") aren't just metaphors straining to be taken seriously; she wails them out with the intent to transform herself. As she sings, a process of subtle metamorphosis takes place right in front of you: in "Clown", you can can hear makeup spreading across her visage, selflessness gilding her voice, and, in "River", her blood becoming raging water. But this is not to say that Sandé is a petulant shapeshifter. She seems to always believe, caught up in the moment of her songs, that each time she changes for the sake of a lover it will be the last time she'll have to; as an artist dependent on heartbreak, she's always wrong.
Both "Clown" and "River" were standouts from Sandé's 2012 debut Our Version of Events, an LP populated by a host of other monosyllabic neo-soul power ballads like "Hope", "Lifetime", "Mountains", "Maybe", and "Suitcase". For its deft fusion of lung-bursting Alicia Keys fervor and contemporary electronic trappings, it garnered a generous portion of praise for the Scottish up-and-comer. More than that, it also snared Sandé a spot at both the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics in London - no small feat, especially for a rookie with only one album under her belt and a gaggle of other British diva-wannabes vying for her limelight. So, it goes without saying: expectations were high for Long Live the Angels. While she may not hit any highs higher that what we heard four years ago, it's a record that gives Sandé plenty of scenery to chew, and what a wonder of teeth, tongue, and lips she offers.
"Hurts", the debut single, is a lit fuse burning on melody and martial drums. There's an effulgent urgency to it; some kind of destruction looms just beyond its 3:58 terminus, but Sandé throws herself heedlessly onto the song's collision course - its snarling verse, its booming chorus, its gospel-powered conclusion - as if she can stop whatever's ahead. "Baby, I'm not made of stone / It hurts", she sings, spurts of brass and strings stinging her skin but leaving her momentum unscathed. "Breathing Underwater", another marquee display of Sandé's vocal prowess, ups the gospel quotient a few more notches. Detailing the sense of invincibility that comes after overcoming adversity, it's a song of such magnitude and grandeur that it could fill a few Olympic ceremonies twice over without breaking a sweat. "Highs & Lows", similarly, is so unabashedly big that when Sandé sings "I'm talking 'bout forever, baby", this forever seems visible in the voice that insists upon it.
Her penchant for ceiling-shattering pop notwithstanding, the LP also lets Sandé close the curtains and flex her voice in more intimate boudoirs, just a few instruments, and her heartache to keep her company. "Give Me Something", "Sweet Architect", and "Lonely" all follow this formula. Then, of course, there's the median between these two approaches: the seismic yet spacious, sky-scraping yet soft. On "Tenderly", a plea for mutual passion backed by a choir of Sandé's Zambian family, this median can be heard in full swing. "Love me gentle, please / Cause it's cold out there / And they like to play rough", she effuses in the final chorus, offering a perfect lyrical snapshot of what her music gives us: an avowal of how cold the world can be matched by the searing heat of a voice chasing rapture.