She’s back! Not that she has been any place but right here, consistent and ever-growing, into what The Sunday Times rightly called “Simply Britain’s best female soul singer”. Perseverance keeps honour bright and so yes, she is back, and with a vengeance. Ladies and Gentleman, I give you the beautiful, the gracious and the sensational Ms. Beverley Knight.
It will come as little or no surprise that I am, and have been for some time, an ardent admirer of this woman. Ever since her first album ‘The B Funk’ back in the nineties I was sitting up and taking notice, though it was the 1999 remix of‘Made It Back’ that solidified my attention. That track became, and still remains (like subsequent others) an anthem of bold self-proclamation for me, and was the signature tune during my own West-End debut. She became that magic thing, an artist who is a comforting friend and an uplifting inspiration – and has remained so with me for the past decade.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her live four times now, ranging from an intimate acoustic set to her ripping the roof off at the Royal Albert Hall (which she is set to repeat in the spring next year). Though she has a vocal ability that, in my mind, has never been given the full credit it deserves, it is here on the stage that Beverley really knocks others into the shade, showing she can cut it as well in the studio as she can in the flesh, if not better only because she is held with less constraint to fly. The fact that she is always teamed with thee best musicians and three of the most gifted backing singers around – this says much. As she herself quotes right at the start of the sleeve notes on this, her sixth album “No man is an island” – she clearly selects well, many of her ‘A Team’ have been with her for years.
I’ve also had the honour of meeting her in person a few times, only to be smitten over completely by her modest grace and sweet unassuming warmth: a diva in the purest sense, class every step of the way. That is worth a mention, because though a stand-off un-touch with reality has never stood in the way of talent, when an ounce of it doesn’t exist, I believe the artist is all the better for it.
From her impressive back catalogue there stand for me a clutch of perennial standards, probably too numerous to mention, and this piece I now write is not here to be a complete retrospective, for fear of becoming a thesis. Suffice to say; if you have yet to discover what came before, I’m hoping what has come now will impel you to do so.
Here it is then: ‘100%’. I’ve been looking forward to this for numerous reasons. The most obvious being, of course, that it is a new album by one Beverley Knight, and waiting any length of time at all was simply too long. Since that wonderful old-school Nashville trip in ‘Music City Soul’, I’d had only the Haji & Emanuel re-visit of ‘The Pressure’ by Sounds of Blackness (joined by the man from her accomplished support trio, the powerful and very velvet Bryan Chambers) to pick up as new. Incidentally, I didn’t think this classic could be matched and polished by anyone, even this winning team, so it was great to be proved wrong.
Also I was yearning for it because, having caught her again at this summer’s iTunes festival at The Roundhouse, I’d been given a glimpse of what was coming with this release: I needed the ‘Soul Survivor’. But there was more: I knew this latest album was coming from Beverley as a complete ‘100%’. No limitation breathed upon her from studio executives. No constraint, or push diminished by any lack of support and faith. Here was a woman, at last, in full hold of the reigns – her career and her artistry unshackled.
It is a thrill to know this. It is an even bigger thrill to hear it. In my (fully-deserved) effluent praise I’ve already made this piece too long for me to start now reviewing each and every track (thirteen in all, though I’m kind of hoping for a deluxe edition soon: some boys just don’t know when they’ve had enough!) However, some rightly justify a special mention.
First then, to the middle of the album, and ‘Soul Survivor’: from the very first seconds of the lilting piano I was there, but this is one of those pieces that just grows and grows, complete with soaring gospel-chorus backing. An anthem that is undeniably an instant classic, lifting like say Queen or Foreigner did at their best. Not that I’m saying it is of that ilk, but I trust you’ll know what I mean upon listening. Then, to top it, from verse two, wait… though not needed still has to be loved for it, and so taking this even higher, she is joined by none other than Chaka Khan. Chaka (I’d swear but my Mum will read this) Khan! Two of the most accomplished female vocalists – together! This song stands as a testimony to both women (yes Beverley, you are the ‘soul survivor’, and do I shout praise for that), thus it so becomes a mantra for us all. I’m left at the finish begging, on my knees, for more, hoping I find an eight-minute remix that does further justice soon.
But we are not left lacking with the immediate, as Beverley kicks right on forward with the self-affirming power of a broken heart in ‘Turned To Stone’, only to then balance it with the subsequent soaring softness of ‘Bare’.
‘Square Peg’ follows that, and here, for every one of us who knows this as we do, I simply holler “Thank You!”
Let me now skip back to the beginning, and the first single release ‘Beautiful Night’. A song of fleeting love is no less still a love song full of truth; and how this gospel encapsulates all of that is the magic that only maturity can sing, touched as it is by a haunting electro instrumentation, which serves in taking it to a whole other level.
This then is kick-ass followed by the night-out starter of ‘Breakout’; and here we get Beverley singing the foxy independence that is just perfect for every foxy independent! ‘Take your place, and start the show…’ Well so you are, Ms. Knight, so you are; now watch a multitude hear and follow your charge. But, which is just another reason why this is a real whole tale, whilst running through with the dominant truth of ‘In Your Shoes’, when the music changes so does the dance, so we get all that is ‘100%’, and all you could hope for, that covers the entire gamut, becomes complete. As with any great artist, Beverley draws from her own heart – it is the quickest route in reaching that of others.
I could go on, and on, do what I said I wouldn’t, so I’ll finish this here, imploring you with considerable might to go and get ‘100%’ for yourself.
This album sings with attitude, with tenderness, with survival. On the first listen, as much as I’ve enjoyed all that has come before in previous work, I feel that, for me, this is her best album to date: contemporary, assured, enriching and soulful. Held in high esteem by a loyal legion of fans, peers and modern music legends (Prince, Chaka, Stevie Wonder to name but three), success has certainly not eluded her these past fifteen years; however, I sometimes feel she has not garnered all that is deserved, so hope that many more will now stand up, take heed, listen and give a roaring chorus of approval. Beverley Knight is a national treasure, and her ascendant is only set to rise higher. And one final note: nothing to do with the music, but it has to be said; as sound, as image – Lady, you are looking seriously HOT!
(first published September 1oth 2009)
NB My recent reviews of Mica Paris and Whitney Houston follow on directly from here, should you so wish to read those too.