MODERN ALBUM REVIEW: Celeste’s ‘Not Your Muse’ (2021)

Few debuts are as anticipated as Celeste’s ‘Not Your Muse’. The album finally dropped today, over a year after the American-born British singer was named the winner of the Brits’ ‘rising star’ award in December 2019; performing her then new single, ‘Strange’, on the 2020 awards show. 

Since then Celeste has been building the hype around her with the release of a number of singles, including ‘Coco Blood’ and ‘She’s my Sunshine’, both of which provoked excitement amongst fans. I myself first heard her music when ‘Strange’ was mentioned by her label mate, Sam Fender, who said the she sounded like Etta James on the track. Hearing her for the first time made me think she was worth keeping an eye on and it was the release of ‘Stop This Flame’ in January 2020 that proved she wasn’t just a flash in the pan; the track’s Nina Simone inspired piano riff sounded like a hit single the moment I heard it. 

Given the hype surrounding the release of this album it’s clear that Celeste has been under significant pressure to produce a truly brilliant album; the pressure has come from her own talent, proving it to be a curse as well as a blessing, and it’s true that many artists have crumbled under the pressure they themselves have been the architect of. Celeste, though, does not appear to fall into this category and has, to my mind, solidified her position as the face of British soul. 

The themes of the album revolve somewhat around those of love and loss; both well trodden thematic paths for this kind of music, but as well as the classic themes of soul, Celeste also incorporates slightly less conventional soul themes and plays heavily on themes of independence and contentedness. Celeste has herself said that the album’s songs each represent a different time in her life, explaining why there are a mixture of themes present on the record. It’s like we’re seeing a little slice of the singer’s life with each track.

Musically, the album takes inspiration from a number of places. There’s elements of Amy Winehouse and Billie Holiday, as well as echoes of her contemporaries such as Michael Kiwanuka and Adele. One of the singles from the album, ‘Love is Back’ features a sound heavily inspired by jazz and is subtly reminiscent of Amy Winehouse; the syncopated rhythm makes me think of the piano from ‘Back to Black’, and gives the song the same kind of retro feel as much of Winehouse’s material does. Celeste’s impeccable vocal range showcased on the track also points to Winehouse as an inspiration. Nowhere does she sound more retro though, than on the album’s opener, ‘Ideal Woman’, which puts the singer centre stage, with gentle instrumentation to compliment her smokey voice and sees her emulating Billie Holiday in just about every way. For me, this is the amongst the standout tracks on the record. Track three, ‘Tonight Tonight’ is, for me, the album’s low point and shows Celeste to crumble slightly under the aforementioned pressure to produce a stunner of an album. The track just lacks substance both sonically and lyrically and seems to be the singer giving way to her label’s desire for a radio-friendly pop song.

A number of the tracks on the album were released as singles and so were already well established prior to the full album’s release. Songs like ‘Stop This Flame’ (mentioned earlier) and ‘A Little Love’ (which was used on the John Lewis Christmas advert) have been fan favourites for some time. The standout of the album’s singles though, is ‘Strange’; the track feels like Celeste’s take on Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’, with its slow piano and powerful vocal brought to the foreground and sounds no less haunting than it did when it was first released. I do, however, feel like the track struggles to establish itself in its new-found surroundings; this is probably due to the fact that it has been out for over a year and is easily overlooked in the context of a full album. I feel the record has come out too late to include ‘Strange’ and I am disappointed to not see a new track in its place.

Lyrically, the album is as emotive as it is thematically developed. Celeste proves here that, even at the age of 26, she has a profound ability to convey emotion though her songwriting. Multiple themes and emotions are explored within the album; for example, track 10, ‘The Promise’ depicts the emotions felt when being trapped by your own admiration for someone: “Same decisions I make/slowly leads me back to you” she sings, describing the endless loop you can find yourself in when stuck in a unrequited relationship. Track seven, ‘Beloved’ is similar thematically in that it depicts the singer longing for a lover who she knows cannot be with her. 

More poignant though, are the themes of independence and power that the singer explores. Tracks like ‘Ideal Woman’ show the singer to be comfortable with herself and unbothered by other people’s opinions: “Please don’t mistake me for a woman who cares” showcases this attitude brilliantly and shows the singer to be as independent as she is talented. The album’s title track also conveys these feelings of power and autonomy and depicts the singer making it clear that, though she may often seem like she is in need of companionship, she can never be owned.

It’s strong, powerful, and evocative lyrics like these that give the album a kind of all-conquering feeling, reassuring the audience that your independence is something you should never lose sight of.

I think the album does a good job of living up to its hype, and shows Celeste to be a supremely talented singer-songwriter. It’s retro musical feel, coupled with her astoundingly good voice, gives it its soulful and moving sound; a kind of sound not being put forward by any of her contemporaries. Its lyrics appeal to the human side of the listener and do a great job in conveying the different themes and emotions they aim to convey. I don’t think it’s as perfect as it could have been; there are one or two disappointments, but I really don’t think anything can take away from the talent Celeste clearly has. The album is fantastic as far as debuts go and I will know that I will return to this album many times in the future.

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