It’s possible that many people are already sick of Celeste without even knowing her name. Watchers of Sky Sports may well want to lob a sock at the woman who wails “You’ll never stop this flame!” every time there’s a break in the football. If treacly John Lewis Christmas adverts are not your thing, there’s a strong chance you may never want to hear from the “give a little love” singer ever again. Those allergic to the notion of popular music as a set of commercial tick-box imperatives may also stifle at yawn at Celeste’s calming, jazz-tinged soul.
As middle of the road as this singer undoubtedly seems, there is, however, much to commend her debut album, Not Your Muse – a gutsier, wiser and more elliptical set of songs than may at first appear. The title hints that Celeste possesses a backbone as well as a pleasing catch in her voice and an aerated soprano when you least expect it.
The title track itself, meanwhile, narrows its eyes at the idea of being someone else’s masterpiece – always a danger when you are a product. “I’ll let you know when I need you to liberate me,” Celeste warbles, knowingly. “I’ll hold my pose, but I’m not your muse.” The album’s cover – on which Celeste is dressed as a cross between Paloma Faith, an outre clubber and a Picasso table ornament – seeks to claw back some characterful high ground that her mainstream career trajectory has thus far conceded.
Although Not Your Muse is her first set, 26-year-old, LA-born, UK-raised, British-Jamaican Celeste Epiphany Waite has been increasingly ubiquitous for some time now, scooping up the BBC Sound of 2020 nod, following it with the Brit rising star award, wowing the unprepared at the Brits last year with her live performance of Strange, and generally setting her sights on the Adele-shaped hole in the airwaves. Waite’s very name emphasises the parallels: A-dele. Ce-leste.
The creative team that surrounds Celeste tends towards bland populism. Her frequent writing partner, Jamie Hartman, makes unmemorable filler for household names, but did co-write Rag’n’Bone Man’s relatively gritty hit Human. Somewhere along the line, a decision was made to aim Celeste at the sweet spot on the Venn diagram of successful British solo femalery where Adele clinks cocktails with Amy Winehouse. Unoriginal as it is, co-opting the feel of Adele’s Rolling in the Deep and a decent helping of Winehouse producer Mark Ronson’s Dap-Kings sound works too: there are blurts of horns to go with the swoops of strings, and a vintage shimmy to vary the pace. Pound signs flash here – but Celeste is capable of surfing some deep swells of vintage feeling too.
Naturally, some songs land better than others. Tonight, Tonight was probably built with an ear for synchronisation – the process by which tunes come to soundtrack ads or TV – given that the chorus (“tonight, tonight”) lends itself to pretty much anything going on after 7pm. Also sub-par is Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, whose promise of superciliousness is snuffed by the politeness of its arrangement.
But Celeste does find her backbone. The album opener, Ideal Woman, is an act of stealth unbalancing. Everywhere, there are signifiers of good taste: brushed drums, gently swelling instruments, glacial pace. But Celeste is taking down male expectations in no uncertain terms. Not only is she nobody’s muse – she’s nobody’s nurse either. “Not the one that’s gonna save you from all your discontent,” she sniffs. There’s a sick burn in a velvet glove next: “Please don’t mistake me for somebody who cares.”
There are further hints that Celeste might be a more intriguing proposition than the latest bit of music biz cannon fodder. Recent single Love Is Back combines a mother’s advice to drink heavily to assuage romantic pain with a stylish LGBTQ+ flavour to the video. Nor does she go in for melisma, even though she could.
There is a more diaphanous quality to Celeste’s note holding, and a phlegmy husk to her croon, that betray a singer who is clever enough to under-sing – to keep her powder dry until her audience is ripe for transporting. On A Kiss, her climactic vocal performance isn’t triumphal, but winningly abstract. The song is a tad smuttier than you’d expect from an artist who is being marketed as mature and classy. “I bit your lip and left you swollen,” she breathes.