Thursday night, Diane and I watched Mary McCartney’s If These Walls Could Sing documentary, which chronicles the history of London’s famed Abbey Road Studios. It’s worthwhile if frustrating, with my main gripe being something beyond McCartney’s control: the lack of film or photos from the many noteworthy sessions. Thus we’re left with such talking heads as Mary’s father Paul, Ringo Starr, Elton John, Jimmy Page (who now looks like an elderly barrister), Nile Rodgers, the Gallagher brothers, plus Roger Waters and David Gilmour—not a bad lineup at all, though much of what they have to say isn’t new to their fans. The lack of producers and engineers who helped shepherd ideas to songs also annoyed me, as did a Kanye West segment in which he set his raps against a classical backdrop.
But that’s all okay: At the end of the day, there are enough fascinating tidbits to satisfy anyone interested in learning more about the Beatles’ former playground. Plus, and more to the point of this essay, the soulful Celeste is featured, too. She makes some cogent observations and is shown performing “Hear My Voice,” the Oscar-nominated song from the soundtrack of The Trial of the Chicago 7, for the Live From Abbey Road television series.
I’m not sure how much attention Celeste has attracted in the States, as I tend to ignore much (though not all) of the mainstream everything. So for those not in the know: She released a few EPs and singles in the late ‘10s, sang with John Batiste on “It’s All Right” from the animated Soul movie, and performed “Hear My Voice” on the 2021 Academy Awards as well as several of the U.S. late-night talk shows. Perhaps more importantly to me, she joined Paul Weller (or vice versa) on a stirring rendition of his “You Do Something to Me” sometime in 2019. How I missed that I’ll never know.
But, if Billboard is to be believed, she’s had but one song in the U.S. charts, and that was part of the Live Lounge All-Stars. For comparison’s sake: Her 2021 full-length debut, Not Your Muse, topped the U.K. charts in its first week of release.
(A good primer on all things Celeste is this Guardian article.)
Anyway, one listen to Not Your Muse and you’ll be hooked. It’s jazzy and soulful, the kind of music that drifts to the foreground and demands your attention. Her vocals conjure, among others, Amy Winehouse, Adele circa “Chasing Pavement,” and Billie Holiday, while the music reminds me at times of Lianne La Havas’ and Tasmin Archer’s blend of jazz, folk and soul, plus Winehouse’s penchant for recasting 1960s’ R&B. Rather than run through a track-by-track analysis, however, I’ll just say that some songs are soft and intimate, while a few are upbeat and open-hearted.
Here she is performing its lead single, “Strange,” at the Union Chapel in London. It delves into how the chemistry between people can change over time.
The title track, about the projection that often takes place between artists and their muses, not to mention between artists and fans, lovers and others, is another stirring song; here, in a Tate Collective project that pairs singers and paintings, she performs it in homage to Salvador Dali’s “Metamorphosis of Narcissus.” (To read more about that pairing, including Celeste’’s thoughts on Dali, click here.)
It’s not all laidback, as I mentioned above, with the mid-tempo “Love Is Back” conjuring Winehouse’s “Back to Black” while “Tonight Tonight” and “Tell Me Something I Didn’t Know” also pick up the pace. That said, I do think the album would have benefited from a few toe-tapping, finger-snapping tunes. The deluxe version of the album, which adds 10 tracks from a variety of one-off projects, does that to an extent, most notably with the mid-tempo John Batiste duet on Curtis Mayfield’s “It’s All Right.”
Nothing prepares one for the big-throated “Hear My Voice,” however. It’s an immense song that gives Celeste a chance to show off her vocal prowess in a way none of the tracks on the Not Your Muse album proper does. It’s a powerful performance. The deluxe version on Apple Music concludes with a sweet rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” that was recorded for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. It’s a tender treat that’s powerful in its own right.
I do wish the Weller duet was also included here, but c’est la vie. My minor criticisms aside, Not Your Muse is a tremendous album. Give it a listen. You’ll be glad you did.