Emeli Sandé: Let's Say for Instance (Album Review)
By the time Emeli Sandé came out earlier this year, she had already released four singles from her upcoming album Let’s Say for Instance. It’s tempting – though it would also be cynical – to find deeper meaning into the songs as if she was parsing out clues before the announcement. But there’s no need to attempt to find subtext in the songs from Let’s Say for Instance because they are, for the most part, smart, uplifting pop songs with the kind of inspirational lyrics that would soothe a wide variety of adversarial circumstances. The cultural climate has been difficult and an album like this one works as a healing balm. So, whether one is struggling with sexual/gender identity, illness, or failed romance, there’s a song on Let’s Say for Instance that will fit; it’s so beautifully sung and well-produced that to find fault would seem churlish.
The work on Let’s Say for Instance has a pleasingly diverse sound as the music touches upon different kinds of popular music: although Sandé maintains her UK Soul/R&B roots, she also incorporates dance, arena rock, and pop. It’s an expensive record that operates like a big-budget film with an appealing leading lady. Though the songs’ production is quite dense and thick – there’s a lot of studio gloss and sheen – Sandé’s strong, distinct voice slices through. In a song like “There Isn’t Much”, there’s in fact so much going on – a haunting gospel choir, programmed percussion, U2-style electric guitars – but the pointed lyrics and the urgent vocals balance the crowded production. Sandé’s voice has a gorgeous catch that injects anything she sings – even the “you, go girl!” lyrics – with a twinge of poignancy.
Sandé’s story is made for pop music: a child of an immigrant father and a British mother who grew up bookish and nurtured her musical talent while studying, eventually earning a degree in clinical medicine from the University of Glasgow. But she kept on singing, writing songs, making music, paying her dues, and growing. She worked with urban-pop royalty, penning tunes for artists and crooning hooks, scoring top 10 hits on the UK charts before her debut album came out.
Her studio debut, Our Version of Events (2012), went to number one on the UK album charts (it even managed to find its way to the top 30 on the Billboard album charts), and it sold an astonishing two million copies. Although, she studied medicine to have something to “fall back on”, her musical talent and effort achieved pop star status – stable, indeed. And beloved – she was appointed MBE (and order of the British Empire award) during the Queen’s 2017 Birthday Honours.
The music on Let’s Say for Instance is the work of a seasoned veteran who had been making music for a decade. There’s a pearl of relieved wisdom heard in the lyrics which sound as if they’ve come from a lifetime of experience. The songs tell stories of women who learn to love themselves and don’t allow adversity to box them in. These are wise tales of love, empowerment, and happiness, like a boxed set of the best episodes from The Oprah Winfrey Show. Sandé’s warmth dominates the record and her songs are like a loving embrace. That she came out to fans via social media seems like a natural extension of the album.
When writing of her loved one, Sandé admits that “it’s taken me years to find the strength to be myself. I’ve struggled for a long time to accept myself as I am.” Coming out, she says, feels like “a huge weight has been lifted.” “Here’s to a new beginning in truth and happiness!” These words of encouragement and self-love capture the theme of Let’s Say for Instance beautifully. Even when Sandé is unapologetically happy and affirming, she doesn’t veer into cliché or pablum. So her’s is a story of hard-won happiness and hard-earned self-confidence.
There’s a sharp intelligence to Sandé’s lyrics and gravity in her voice that firmly keeps the album from collapsing beneath the weight of its positivity. Listen to the spiky pop of “Super Human”, in which the singer bluntly brings up uncompromising questions like: “Oh, is it worth, baby, giving your life, to something that you wouldn’t die for/ Is it worth, baby, spending your time, on something you ain’t got time for/ is it worth, baby, shedding a tear, for someone that won’t even fight for you?” These are the kinds of questions that a sage friend asks you when she’s trying to help you see clearly. But there’s also a moment of reflection when Sandé asks, “Is it worth, baby, living in fear, and missing out on what would’ve been right for you?” One can’t help but draw a line directly from the honesty of this phrase with Sandé’s admission that she struggled for years before she finally came out. But “Super Human” doesn’t operate with anxiety or angst; instead, there’s forgiveness and empathy for someone who needs a cheerleader.
Listening to Let’s Say for Instance is like spending a wonderful afternoon with a best friend. The songs are bright hugs of pop that are buoyant, charming, and entertaining. Though a mainstream pop album, there are moments that indulge in some of Sandé’s more esoteric interests. On the gorgeous instrumental track, “July 25th”, the singer is joined by her loving partner, pianist Yoana Karemova. It’s a sweeping, lilting diversion, different than the rest of the album because it’s an instrumental, contemporary-classical piece, instead of a vocal pop tune like the other songs. By including a song with Karimova, Sandé and Karemova put their relationship on display and invite not only love and appreciation but criticism or indifference.
Let’s Say for Instance is about being fearless. It’s about jumping in with both feet and never mind what others think of you. Though Sandé admits to “struggling” with her coming out, the art she’s created from that struggle is that of “surviving” – a constant theme in her work. Sandé’s music scores moments of self-doubt and apprehension, but also offers succor and hope. Let’s Say for Instance is the soul album we need in these struggle-filled cultural-political times.