Emeli Sandé: Our Version of Events – review

Simon Cowell loves her – but don't let that put you off. Emeli's Sande's debut is a good, if incomplete, display of her talents

Recently, there has been much heated discussion about entitlement in pop: the Brit School students fast-tracked into the charts with no thought to the paying of dues; the indie bands packed with wealthy public school kids crowding out the market for the 93% of the population who didn't. Whatever you make of all that, it's nice to report on a career that, even in its early stages, genuinely represents a victory against the odds. Which brings us to Emeli Sandé, who has managed to get herself taken seriously as a singer-songwriter despite the mortal blow dealt to her in 2011 when Simon Cowell announced her to be his favourite songwriter.

Picture yourself, if you can bear it, in her position: a Joni Mitchell fan with a tattoo of Freida Kahlo on her arm, carefully laying the groundwork for her solo career with a selection of well-chosen guest appearances – Tinie Tempah, Wiley and Professor Green. Then, suddenly, the man who gave the world Il Divo – and who, when invited to share his musical heroes with the viewers of The X Factor in 2010, chose Kelly Clarkson and Boney M – offers his endorsement. Maybe she brought it on herself by writing a song that was used on Susan Boyle's third album, but you still rather imagine her with her head in her hands, crying in the manner of a fallen Victorian maid: "My reputation is ruined! Who will want me now?"

And yet, months later, here Sandé is, the happy recipient of the Brits Critics' Choice award. Her eagerly awaited debut album, meanwhile, comes complete with a collaboration with R&B's high priestess of earnestness, Alicia Keys: the closing track, Hope, which with its squelching, knowingly retro synth line carries a twang of early-70s Stevie Wonder. Elsewhere, however, inspiration comes from closer to home. The single Heaven was a fantastic pop song shaded with orchestration and a clattering breakbeat: it seemed to point backwards to the debut albums by Soul II Soul and Massive Attack, two high watermarks for British soul. Sonically, at least, a large chunk of the album takes as its starting point the latter's Unfinished Sympathy – you hear its echo over and over again on Mountains, Daddy and Suitcase.

There are obviously far worse things to take your inspiration from, even if the effect wears a bit thin with repetition. Even so, listening to what's going on between the breakbeats and the strings, you can see why Cowell likes her so much. Sandé's default setting is a certain kind of familiar, midtempo, bring-on-the-wind-machine ballad, which, if it doesn't arrive bedecked in Unfinished Sympathy strings, comes set to piano, or acoustic guitar. You can imagine most things here being belted out at an X Factor audition by a hopeful who just wants to make grandma proud. That means Sandé is ruthlessly professional, economical writer – you don't get through to boot camp performing something that rambles on like the Ozric Tentacles – who can clearly knock out radio-ready choruses such as those on Maybe and Next to Me in her sleep.

Equally, you can't help wishing she'd put her talents to more original use, not least because when she does, as on My Kind of Love, the results are spectacular: distorted drums, a chorus backed by massed, wordless voices, like an abstract take on a gospel choir.

With the exception of Breaking the Law – on which Sandé offers to cheer her melancholy partner up by nicking things and committing arson – the lyrics pass by in a blur of well-worn images in which lovers signify their imminent departure by leaving their suitcase at the door, and couples are advised to climb mountains together, as if Milletts had attempted to stave off closure by diversifying into marriage guidance. Her voice slips into an Amy Winehouse pastiche on Daddy, but nothing really has that sour tang of reality that marked out Back to Black, or indeed Adele's Someone Like You.

Of course, none of this is going to stop Our Version of Events being successful, which – as her No 1 fan would surely tell you – is what really matters. And perhaps there's enough there to suggest she might be around longer than most of the artists he backs, because she might make more interesting records than this. For now, though, even as you list its shortcomings, it's hard to argue that it sounds like anything other than a massive hit.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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