By Sasha White
There is no doubt that Celeste’s debut studio album has solidified her as the new face of British soul. The American-born British singer and songwriter rose to acclaim back in 2019 with the eerily captivating single ‘Strange’, a meditation on broken relationships which showcases her uniquely soulful, yet vulnerable, voice. A knockout performance at the 2020 BRIT Awards and a win for Rising Star reflected the fact that Celeste was fast becoming a critic and listener favourite respectively.
While 2020 took an unfortunate turn which cancelled tours and festivals indefinitely and prevented many up and coming artists from promoting themselves, Celeste’s ability to pen deeply emotive lyrics coupled with her unforgettable vocals saw her release a steady flow of gorgeous singles - including ‘I Can See The Change’, ‘Little Runaway’ and ‘Hear My Voice’ - throughout the year. Celeste proved her undeniable talent by leaving us wanting more, in a year that would have seen any other less than stellar artist fly under the radar.
The highly-anticipated Not Your Muse landed on 29th January and it certainly does not disappoint. If ‘Strange’ established her as an extraordinarily singular talent, this album displays her incredible range from the outset. Opening with the slow yet contemplative ‘Ideal Woman’ is a clever choice on Celeste’s part, because it reveals the strength of her songwriting: “May not be your ideal woman / The freedom that you’d get / Please don’t mistake me for a woman who cares.” This notion of empowerment is a motif that she interweaves throughout the record, mirrored in both the self-assuredness of her writing and the fortitude of her vocals.
Musically, the album oscillates between tender and heartfelt instances such as ‘Beloved’, ‘Strange’ and ‘A Kiss’ and upbeat, catchy pop brimming with passion (‘Stop This Flame’ and ‘Tonight Tonight’). Written as a response to the bleak political climate of early 2020, the memorable ‘Tell Me Something I Don’t Know’ balances emotive despair in the lyrics (“Tell me something I don’t know / I can’t see through / Every day, it gets so loud, it gets so loud”) with snappy percussion and brass that add a touch of hope to her message. Meanwhile, ‘Love Is Back’ capitalises on a rhythm and brass line reminiscent of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back to Black’, exploring the intoxication of meeting the right person at the right time: “I saw / You / I saw you gleaming across the scene, across the room / It’s all in you / I need the meaning when I see it all in you.” The tendency to get carried away in idealising this new-found attraction is underlined through the sparkling production particularly evident in its chorus.
The real standout moment, though, is the eponymous track. In ‘Not Your Muse’, her remarkable voice delivers deeply poetic lyrics accompanied by increasingly sweeping and cinematic production. Celeste subverts the traditional idea of the artist and their ‘muse’ by reclaiming her power and choosing the way she wishes to be seen: “I can be bold / Decorate me, adore me, baby / But I can’t be owned / It’s not part of my design / I’ll let you know / When I need you to liberate me.”
Celeste still manages to convey powerful messages even in her more laid-back tracks such as ‘A Promise’ and ‘Some Goodbyes Come With Hellos’. Simple bossa nova inspired acoustic instrumentation on the latter directs attention to her earnest lyricism of endings and beginnings: “Sometimes we can’t choose things we are drawn to / Ones we are bound to lose / We should let them go / Trust me, this I know / That some goodbyes come with hellos.” Her lyricism is reinforced on the quasi-orchestral collaboration ‘Unseen’ with French-British songwriter Lauren Auder, which is a reflection on being unheard and feeling insecure: “And I was left chasing myself / Embarrassed to learn what you’d taught me / And I would deny what you gave / If I asked there’s nothing left to see.”.
In describing the album process, she reveals that it “is the power I found when I felt powerless...In making this album I have allowed myself to arrive at a place where I feel empowered, fiercely wide-eyed and fulfilled.” It goes without saying that with this album Celeste has well and truly “arrived” and she is most definitely here to stay. When Finneas O’Connell, who produced her hauntingly beautiful ballad ‘I Can See The Change’, said that she would “go down as one of the greats” he was absolutely right and there have been many a deserved comparison to Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Amy Winehouse. However while there may be traces of these late great powerhouses in her own voice, Not Your Muse proves that Celeste is quickly becoming a once-in-a-generation superstar in her own right.
Rating: 4 stars