For any artist, the pressure on their first album is always immense. In the run up to release there’s a certain, predictable trajectory to the interviews, television appearances, and adverts that appear – an increase in quantity and assertion that “it’ll be good, maybe even spectacular”.
So, spare a thought for 26-year-old songstress Celeste who has already won BBC’s Sound of the Year, a BRIT Rising Star award (previous winners include Sam Smith and Adele), and been the soundtrack to the coveted John Lewis Christmas advert on the back of just four single releases. With the music industry touting her potential at such volume, we can allow ourselves a certain level of scepticism. She can’t be that good, can she?
Oh, but she can. Not Your Muse is, in short, exceptional. For it feels, in a curiously comforting way, that in just under an hour she time-travels her listeners through the next few decades of her career. She covers every mode from the vulnerable, rawer demo feel of a first album to mid-career experimentalism and later-life stylistic establishment.
It’s bold, yet humble, with a sense of deference to her influences that only enhances the authenticity of her sound. There’s Winehousian lyrical savagery, Buckley-like guitar ostinatos, Fitzgeraldian vocal versatility. It’s encyclopaedic in its scope and triumphant in its execution to a degree that few have managed before.
Setting the tone with ‘Ideal Woman’ a sultry, anti-romantic ballad, Celeste sweeps between the aphoristic ‘Strange’, to ‘Tonight Tonight’, which feels reminiscent of a Bond theme. ‘Love is Back’ is anthemic and ethereal, ‘A Kiss’ simple but demonstrative of her vocal prowess, ‘Some Goodbyes Come with Hellos’ hazily nostalgic. The timbral palettes are immensely rich, bordering on the orchestral at points. There are brass punctuations, luscious strings, and, at the start of ‘Beloved’, the hint of a marimba.
Many of the songs wouldn’t be misplaced in the soundtracks of Killing Eve or The End of The Fucking World, with their noir, subversive energies – ‘I’ll let you know / when I need you to liberate me / I’ll hold my pose / but I’m not your muse’ she sings in the title track. The perspective of many of the lyrics, the viewed challenging the viewer, creates an intimate dialogue. Rather than passively listening, empathising and recognising our own experiences in her writing, we are acknowledged, and identified as her listeners. It’s magical.
Admittedly, the album isn’t completely perfect. There are moments where the songs diverge from their distinct entities and blur into a mono-sonic soundscape. Though beautiful in essence, this brings with it a sense of repetition that can be mildly off-putting. A few tracks appear to anticipate their reworkings as club remixes (‘Stop This Flame’ and ‘Tell Me Something I Don’t Know’ spring to mind), implying that she gave up a little, intending for them to be improved by another’s hand.
There are also notable omissions on the standard edition when compared with its deluxe counterpart: ‘Lately’, ‘Both Sides of The Moon’ and ‘I’m Here’ could easily have been included. Perhaps that’s not an issue of suitability and more an indication of the abundance of her talent.
In its entirety, though, Not Your Muse is the album that Celeste deserves to be credited with. It is a masterpiece: emotionally gymnastic and artistically assured. There’s intimacy, and tenderness, and command. If this were to be the only album she ever released, you’d forgive her. But you’d also be vastly disappointed, because there’s an underlying quality to her work that could only increase with album output – potential.
Image Credit: Elizaveta Porodina