Emeli Sandé, to put it politely, is pleasant, the kind of pop singer who never veers too far from the middle of the road. She believes with all her heart in a refrain as cloying as “We’ll climb mountains, climb mountains together.” Her net is intentionally wide so as to capture as many fans as possible, often at the expense of distinction.
She closed her sold-out performance at the Paradise Rock Club on Tuesday with a declaration of uplift:
Yeah, we’re all wonderful, wonderful people
So when did we all get so fearful?
Now we’re finally finding our voices
So take a chance, come help me sing this
No, that’s not a passage from one of India.Arie’s odes to self-empowerment circa 2001. It’s from Sandé’s debut, “Our Version of Events,” which was the top-selling album in her native Britain last year.
Sandé, an English-born singer-songwriter who grew up in Scotland, has been a tougher sell in this country, though the warm reception at the Paradise suggested she’s finding her footing. Her power lies not in her voice, which is strong but sorely missing some nuance, but rather in her ability to connect. “My stories could be your stories,” she remarked at the start of the performance.
The night began with a spark, a sultry come-on in the form of “Heaven.” Over a jittery backbeat that Sandé rode like a roller coaster, she wondered, “Will you recognize me/ When I’m lying on my back?” She was so sly that you couldn’t imagine anyone ever forgetting her.
But then came the onslaught of “American Idol,” pop so faceless and generic, the songs could have been templates for other singers. (Which makes sense, given that Sandé has written for Rihanna and Alicia Keys, among others.)
She and her band often mistook volume for emotion. Sometimes it worked. “Next to Me,” her biggest hit, ricocheted off the crowd like the ultimate singalong, but other times your pulse didn’t race in synch with Sandé’s.
When Sandé scaled back, you could see the untapped potential. “My baby’s got his suitcase/ He’s telling me it’s too late/ But don’t nobody/ Please don’t ask me why,” she sang, breaking your heart with just her voice and the faintest of accompaniment.
Sandé the soul singer had edged her way out of the bombast, and it was glorious. And pointed at something besides the back of the room.
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.