Album of the Year, 2016: Long Live the Angels by Emeli Sandé

sandebreathingAdele Emily Sandé was born in Sunderland, England, where her Zambian father met her English mother. The family moved to Alford, Scotland when she was four. She began songwriting at 11 and pursued music as a passion, including participation in a “Rapology” competition at 16. Inspired by her educator father, she took her education seriously, completing a degree in neuroscience before pursuing music full time so she would have “something to fall back on.” Her artistic inspirations are Frida Kahlo – for her fearlessness – and Nina Simone. She also drew musical inspiration from Joni Mitchell.

Sandé’s early work consisted of writing songs for other acts, gradually assuming guest vocalist roles on a number of these tracks. Since another British singer was making it big with the name Adele, Sandé opted for an alternate spelling of her middle name for her singing career. After a numerous chart collaborations, including the #6 Diamond Rings with Chipmunk, she began work on her debut album, Our Version of Events. It was a UK smash, spending ten weeks at #1 and becoming the biggest-selling British album of 2012. Sandé was invited to sing at the opening and closing ceremonies of that year’s London-held Olympic games.

The pressure took its toll, and her one-year marriage to her longtime boyfriend crashed and burned. After a relentless touring schedule, she went into seclusion to craft her second album. Drawing from her painful experiences and her fearless inspirations, she crafted an amazing set of tracks drawing on an even broader set of musical traditions.

Album Long Live the Angels
Act Emeli Sandé
Label Virgin Release Date November 11, 2016
Producer Emeli Sandé, Naughty Boy, Mac & Phil, Chris Loco, Mojam
U.S. Chart  41 U.K. Chart  2
  1. Selah
  2. Breathing Underwater
  3. Happen
  4. Hurts
  5. Give Me Something
  6. Right Now
  7. Shakes
  8. Garden
  9. I’d Rather Not
  10. Lonely
  11. Sweet Architect
  12. Tenderly
  13. Every Single Little Piece
  14. Highs & Lows
  15. Babe

Sandé launches Long Live the Angels with a stunning invocation. Selah is a brief, inspirational track, welcoming the listener and setting the soul-searching, ultimately hopeful tone of the disc. Things pick up with Breathing Underwater, a soulful mission statement that finds strength in even the darkest moments. It’s one of her finest songs, and a stirring introduction to the disc. Happen, by contrast, is bare bones. A guitar and vocal number reminiscent of Pops Staples, it holds an eerie tension as she draws out the title, creating a sense of waiting.

The wait breaks with Hurts, another powerful number. Ironically both one of the most danceable and most tragic songs on the disc, it surges forward with rapid handclaps and driving strings. Sandé turns in a gospel-inspired vocal as she declares “my heart’s not made of stone, it hurts.”

Give Me Something is a desperate plea, a search for something to believe in during dark times. It sequences smartly into Right Now, a sort of answer to Happen, with similar guitar-and-vocal structure but a change in pace. Demanding an end to the wait of the previous song, Sandé asks for the love she deserves. The first half of the album wraps up with the stirring, sensuous Shakes, an exploration of passion as a double-edged sword.

Garden is a smart centerpiece, a collaboration with Jay Electronica and Aine Zion that features a rap by the former, smart vocal contributions from the latter, and the most hip-hop sound of the disc.

Part two opens with another standout, the wistful I’d Rather Not. Over beautiful acoustic guitar, Sandé intones a rich bit of irony. “Although I’d love to, I’d rather not,” she observes, noting the pain that giving in to her feelings has caused her. Powerful because it’s understated, it shows off another side of the singer. Lonely picks up from there, almost celebrating the loss she regrets but understands as necessary. On Sweet Architect, she draws strength from relying on the support of a loved one. This trio of songs – smartly placed in the middle of the action – encapsulates the themes, tensions, and hopes of the disc nicely.

Sandé brings in her father and cousins to provide a supporting chorus on Tenderly. It’s a wonderful up-tempo number with a classic gospel-pop feel that celebrates new love and hope after the devastation explored in earlier tracks. That sense of hope informs the closing trio of songs.

Every Single Little Piece explores the complexity of a woman regaining her strength, one piece at a time. That flows seamlessly into the choir-supported anthem Highs & Lows, another of the disc’s standouts. Joyous and infectious, it explores the power one can draw from all experiences in life and features one of Sandé’s finest vocals – no mean feat. The disc wraps up with a celebration of new love in Babe. Rather than an innocent paean, however, it’s a wonderful recognition of the effort needed from both partners to make a relationship work. Ebullient and smart, it’s the perfect conclusion to a brilliant album.

BONUS TRACKS: The deluxe edition of Long Live the Angels features three additional songs that truly enhance the experience. Kung Fu is a bit of smart wordplay centered on an offer to be available for a friend in need. It’s a nice counterpoint to the explorations of the main album, and the fun and sincerity are measured out perfectly. Somebody channels Lady Gaga in the best way, with Sandé insisting “tonight I am a big fucking deal.” A bit of a road song, a bit of insistent independence, it’s a nice little journey. Sandé builds the perfect coda with This Much Is True. It’s a bit of a Joni Mitchell tribute, with acoustic guitar underpinning lyrics that veer from the topical to the romantic in a smart stream. Fundamentally a declaration of love in trying times, it’s a wonderful treat to wrap up the extra moments.

FURTHER LISTENING: It’s hard to remember that Emeli Sandé only has two albums to her credit given the dozens of tracks to which she’s contributed writing and vocals. Most of these collaborations are more in the hip hop and rap vein; her rich singing adds a wonderful humanity to them and her sense of fun regularly shines through. The finest is her collaboration with Naughty Boy for his album Hotel Cabana, the exhilarating Wonder. Her debut album isn’t as consistent as Long Live the Angels, but its best moments are amazing and the rest of the tracks are at worst well-constructed soulful pop. If you want stunning vocals in an array of styles, add both Sandé discs to your collection.


About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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