Would any artist take on the mantle of “next big thing” if they had the choice? There’s a certain alchemy at play when music critics bestow this honour – part wisdom, part taste, and more often, sheer luck – but for the artists, it can either be a glorious prophecy or a kiss of death. For Celeste, the British-Jamaican singer-songwriter with a voice that harkens back to jazz and blues singers of days gone by, it wasn’t just one prediction; it was near-unanimous: BBC Sound of 2020 winner, the Rising Star Award at the Brits and countless publications’ pick as one to watch. Alas, the year earmarked as her breakthrough had several other ideas.
Celeste’s now long-awaited debut album, ‘Not Your Muse’, has found a home in 2021 instead. Predominately co-written and produced by Jamie Hartman (whose credits include Rag’n’Bone Man’s ‘Human’), ‘Not Your Muse’ is at once a showcase for Celeste’s singularly gifted and eerie vocals, a retro-modern sonic playground to explore in an unhurried fashion and – on rare occasion – a minefield of generic soul-inspired pop.
‘Ideal Woman’ is not an extravagant opener; rather, a delicate but sure statement of intent. Celeste airs her laundry list of faults – “too proud”, “too loud” – over simple, arpeggiated guitars and a snare drum simmering beneath the surface, but this smoky vulnerability never dips into self-deprecation. She speaks plainly to past and future loves, “I may not be…the heaven in your head”, until catharsis makes way for self-acceptance: “please don’t mistake me for somebody who cares.” This quest to demystify the feminine mystique continues on the title track: a defiant deconstruction of how rising stars can all too easily lose their humanity in the eyes of those they work with – “You’ve mistaken me for your masterpiece.”
These introspective, minimalist numbers are neatly juxtaposed by more lushly orchestrated tracks: ‘Tonight Tonight’, with its toe-tapping groove and jubilant horn arrangements, finds itself reeling from excitement over a new love; similarly, latest single ‘Love is Back’ swaggers superbly like a forgotten collaboration between Amy Winehouse, Mark Ronson and The Dap-Kings. More lacklustre moments – ‘Tell Me Something I Don’t Know’, ‘The Promise’ – hint at a deliberate gambit for a Radio 2 listenership by veering more towards Paloma Faith than Nina Simone, but that impulse remains in check. For even when the musical accompaniment is at its most generic, Celeste’s soulful husk retains its power and intrigue.
The record burns brightest during ‘Strange’ – a career-making song that continues to beguile two years after its release – but ‘Beloved’ possesses its own cinematic charm. The tune has the romantic burn of an Old Fashioned, underpinned by nostalgic strings and a melody that immediately calls to mind ‘Blue Velvet’ and other Great American Songbook standards. ‘A Kiss’, meanwhile, has a spine-tingling, off-kilter climax that indicates Celeste was holding out on us.
Penultimate track ‘A Little Love’ fares differently. As the soundtrack to last year’s John Lewis Christmas advert, a degree of schmaltz comes with the territory but more disconcerting is how her voice sounds as though it’s been fed through a Björk simulator. As the only conspicuous inclusion on an otherwise smooth and sophisticated album, however, it’s easy to forgive a commercial and uncharacteristic indulgence during such a turbulent time for the music industry.
While comparisons to Adele may feel trite-on-arrival, the similarities between ‘Not Your Muse’ and the former’s debut, ‘19’, are intermittently striking. Both records soar when they allow their artists to settle and find their element, rather than compromising for a more universal appeal. During both its self-assured big band numbers and quieter, contemplative moments, there is plenty of promise on Celeste’s debut effort, and should she look to the past in order to move forward and give up the relative comforts of broad-brush pop and soul, there’s every indication that the considerable success many predicted for her will come true.
Celeste’s debut album, ‘Not Your Muse’ is out now. Listen below.