Cleo Sol occupies a rarefied space. A press-averse cult figure, she’s quietly but uncompromisingly codified the sound of UK soul. Earlier this year, the London-born singer performed sold-out shows at the Royal Albert Hall; for a singer without hits to her name, this was a monumental feat. Cleo’s affirming odes have chimed with an audience who’ve grown with her, bearing witness to a repertoire of soul-seasoned fusion – distinctly homegrown but with the kind of transatlantic appeal that made Sade a crossover success.
New album ‘Heaven’ is Cleo Sol’s third in under four years, and like previous LPs – ‘Rose In The Dark’ and ‘Mother’ – it dramatises the vicissitudes that comes with enduring love, fidelity, motherhood and the orbit of platonic relationships. ‘Heaven’ develops rather than radically departs from the muted palette of its predecessors, this time through the lens of an earned maturity. These are short stories with a heightened sense of spiritual self-work coursing through them. On the bass groove rhapsody ‘Self’, Cleo delivers prophetic notes, calling on a higher power in a moment of inner discord; the title track with its gospel phrasing is a reminder to oneself, and to other ground down beings, that salvation is found within – that “loving yourself is free”.
On ‘Heaven’, Cleo surveys her role as a figure of influence within her relationships. Her admission of severed ties with a friend who “told secrets to strangers” is made resolute on the blithe, buoyant piano-pop piece ‘Old Friends’. The Zhané-inflected, invigorating melodica of ‘Golden Child (Jealous)’ and the quixotic ‘Miss Romantic’ centres relational perceptions and mishaps, with Cleo providing womanist affection to a passive friend who needs reminding.
You do wonder if a handful of songs on ‘Heaven’ were outtakes from ‘Mother’-era recording sessions. Like much of her sophomore effort, ‘Heaven’ is predicated around zephyr-like immersion and mantra-like repetition. Cleo’s voice is familiar, airy and agile; at times articulating avant-jazz expressions, channelling adult contemporary RnB and quiet storm priestesses of past. Deviations in sound or tempo are rare, though on ‘Nothing On Me’, Cleo opts for percolating grooves and atmosphere, a New Age-meets-funk trip instrumental with a faint vocal reprise signifying where the ‘Why Don’t You’ singer could venture to next.
‘Heaven’ feels like the culmination of an era-defining partnership with Inflo. On this brisk 30 minute piece, Cleo Sol centres personal and communal healing; a soothsayer comforting sapped souls just as she actively practices love on herself. Her balladry is simple, sparse, unfeigned and unpretentious, and her torch songs smoulder like burning embers. With murmurs of a US tour on the horizon, it’s only right that another timeless coda sung by a generational voice provides the score.
Words: Shahzaib Hussain