Responding to the hype attributed to her from all corners of the music industry, Celeste has delivered a debut album that outperforms all expectations. The Mic’s Joe Hughes gives his thoughts as he delves into the enchanting world of Not Your Muse.
After being named the BBC’s Sound of 2020, Celeste Waite might have expected to spend the year headlining festivals and enduring the media parade that comes with such an accolade. Her single Stop This Flame, with its rolling beat and unrelenting rhythm, certainly kickstarted what should have been a hectic year, when it was released in January. The events that unfolded, however, meant that festivals never materialized, and her debut album Not Your Muse had to be repeatedly delayed. But Celeste has somehow harnessed the chaotic energy of the year and kept up the momentum to arrive at a stunning and sophisticated debut collection.
Its opening track Ideal Woman immediately envelopes the listener into Celeste’s hazy soundscape. The muted instrumental lets her crystalline vocal set the tone, each tremble speaking to the bubbling tension that litters the whole album. A slight tremble becomes an almighty tremor in Strange, a composition that has fast become her early masterpiece. The delicate power of her phrasing is such that the listener hears not just every note, but every breath. Strange is haunting, harsh, and heart-wrenchingly tender in equal measure, but it’s a world away from the marching timbre of the tracks that follow. Tonight Tonight, driven by percussive urgency, is pursued by a cut of Stop This Flame that, although has no less appeal than the opening ballads, demonstrates the extensiveness of her vocal range.
‘The latter half of the album emphasizes the premium Celeste places on artistic integrity and personal honesty.’
Given that this album has been so long in the making, it might seem odd that Celeste has been embraced into the mainstream so completely. Her success since being crowned both the BRIT’s Rising Star and BBC Introducing’s Artist of the Year in 2019 suggests that she is an act that the industry simply will not allow to dwindle. However, her image isn’t cheapened by frequent appearances on the chat show circuit or a feature in the John Lewis Christmas advert. In fact, the timeless appeal of the unique mix of soul, early vocal jazz, and R&B makes her music the perfect introduction to a rich musical tradition; Celeste herself has noted the dearth of black female talent reaching the mainstream.
Much of the latter half of the album emphasizes the premium Celeste places on artistic integrity and personal honesty. A Kiss and Beloved manage to capture a sense of plaintiveness without becoming overly melancholy. Her soaring inflection keeps things upbeat – operatic in parts – but fades to a raspy whisper when it needs to. In both the album’s core theme and her vocal technique, control is paramount.
The title track Not Your Muse expresses this most clearly by eschewing the influence of critics, and even other artists, and by placing sole importance on her distinct voice. Time and time again, you can’t help but be floored by its oppressive stillness. This makes the constant comparisons in the press to a vast array of female artists – namely Amy Winehouse, Billie Holiday, and Adele – all the more infuriating. These comparisons aren’t invalid but distract from Celeste’s status as a vocalist, and the way she addresses the modern trials of introspection, isolation, and authenticity. Regardless, better comparisons could be made: the eminently listenable quality of Celeste’s catalog and unabashed curation of a personal aesthetic are more reminiscent of legendary British songstress Sade.
Quirky album artwork complements the tracklisting to make this album the full creative package, which Celeste discloses has left her feeling “fiercely wide-eyed and fulfilled.” As a listener, her gentle guidance leaves you feeling the same.
Written by: Joe Hughes
Edited by: Dominic Allum