Celeste – Not Your Muse

The eagerly-anticipated debut album by Celeste has arrived. The Recs gives Not Your Muse a spin.

Being tipped as the next big thing in the music industry is such a double-edged sword. It means that the weight of expectations precede any music you release. And Celeste could not have been hailed any more obviously as The Next Big Thing if she had a neon sign flashing constantly above her head.

Winning any of the BBC Music’s IntroducingSound of 2020, the Brit for Rising Star or YouTube’s Artist On The Rise awards, would place a new musician on people’s radar. Celeste won them all!

So it’s no exaggeration to say the pressure is on for the American-born British singer-songwriter with the release of her debut album, Not Your Muse. But let’s try and sweep away the hype and focus on what Celeste has to offer.

The impression on first listening is quite how polished the album is. You might question how polished a debut album should be but that’s not to say Not Your Muse isn’t without exploring what kind of artist Celeste is or wants to be. It’s wrong to compare artists to other artists so you’ll find no references to Adele, Amy Winehouse or Corinne Bailey Rae in a review from The Recs. Oh.

The songs are melodic, there’s no question of that. There’s a familiarity. Why wouldn’t there be when a third of the (main album) tracks are already well-known?

Strange, Celeste’s poignant musing on lost loves and lost friendships (“If I could I’d pull your strings/For one more dance/But I can’t”) surely is forever tied to her iconic performance at The Brits where we couldn’t really see her backlit in a star spotlight but we could hear her. Whether by accident or design, her incredible voice is what we remember from that performance.

You’ll know Stop This Flame from Sky Sports coverage of the football – an infectious anthem of determination that channels Nina Simone’s Sinnerman by the way of Beyoncé and Naughty Boy’s Runnin’ (Lose It All).

Love Is Back is the single release that happens to be the most redolent of Amy’s album Frank given the brass, the soul and the effortless, nonchalant vocals. ” I’m startin’ to realise that all the boys that I find /Are all trouble” confirms the comparison.

Last of the known songs is A Little Love. In July 2020, Celeste spoke to DIY magazine about the tracks on her forthcoming album: “There’ll be pop moments, but the album tracks are very much me being expressive in a way that isn’t polluted by the idea of them having to measure up to anything in terms of commercial success”. A Little Love became the first original song to be commissioned for John Lewis’ Christmas advert. A commercial success that sits uncomfortably – a little too saccharine, a little too contrived – in an otherwise interesting album.  

No, not commercial at all in the John Lewis Christmas advert

Ignoring the first four singles – and that’s quite a statement – we arrive at the rest of the album and discover an exploration of delights. 

Acutely self-aware, “Some others may say it’s because I’m so tall / But that doesn’t bother me at all” from the opening track, Ideal Woman, is a declaration of confidence and self-empowerment. This theme is continued in the haunting ballad title song, Not Your Muse: “I can be bold / Decorate me, adore me, baby/ But I can’t be owned”. 

Even when she steeps herself in melancholy in a chanson like A Kiss (which feels assured enough to be a Jacques Brel cover rather than an evocative original song), the underlying message is regardless of setbacks or disappointments, there is survival. “And so it goes like this / When some I want and some don’t fit / Some, some, some are just a kiss”. Marc Almond once defined the difference between a singer and a vocalist: a singer is someone who is concerned with delivering the melody of the song as perfectly as possible, while a vocalist inhabits the soul of a song and whatever conveys the true feeling of the song they’ll use. Celeste by that definition is definitely a vocalist. She allows every rasp, every hoarse crack in her soaring delivery to convey the pain and emotional punch of the song.

Don’t get the impression it’s a downer of an album. Far from it. It’s an album that embraces different styles and arrangements. Celeste seems equally comfortable when she goes upbeat with irresistible percussion-led pop stomper, Tonight Tonight, floats through ambient jazz (with intermittent bird twittering) on The Promise or immerses herself into the dreamy, Blue Velvet-esque, 50’s nostalgia of Beloved, complete with marimbas, soothing strings and echoing vocals. 

Whilst Not Your Muse holds few surprises, it delivers a flawlessly produced collection of enduring songs that will continue to fill the airwaves for months to come. The perfect formula: Radio 2 music with Radio 1 vocals. 

It’s really that voice – all scars, insouciance and soaring – that really elevates the album to essential listening status. Celeste told Vogue in August 2020 “I want to be one of the superstar singers of my time.” Her debut album is a confident first step in the right direction. 

Not Your Muse by Celeste was released on Polydor.