Cleo Sol: Heaven review – soulful succour from the Sault singer

Not much is known about Sault, even though the mysterious London collective have released 11 startling albums over the past few years. Their output exists without exegesis: no interviews or photos. They have yet to play live.

The soul singer Cleo Sol is a big part of Sault. But compared with them, the enigmatic vocalist is – almost – an open book. We know what she looks like. We know she was born in London as Cleopatra Zvezdana Nikolic; her parents (Jamaican and Serbian-Spanish) are thought to have met in a jazz band. She has a social media presence; she plays live. Earlier this year, Sol sold out two nights at London’s Royal Albert Hall. (It was easier, complained some on Twitter, to get tickets to Beyoncé.)

We know that Sol and Sault also share a label, Forever Living Originals (FLO), run independently by producer Inflo (Flo for short), the alias of Dean Josiah Cover, whose productions have racked up Mercurys, Mobos, Ivor Novellos and Brits either for Inflo specifically or for his clients. Michael Kiwanuka and Little Simz have both made award-winning records with the producer and have guested on Sault outings; Sol has appeared on Little Simz tracks such as Woman. Inflo and Sol are an item, and it’s assumed that it’s their sleeping child on the cover of Sol’s very personal 2021 album, Mother – watched over by a photo on the wall, thought to be of Sol’s own mother.

Other than her social media posts, some since deleted, Sol hasn’t explained her art in detail in quite some time. Sol/Sault records drop most often with no warning, as Heaven, her third overall, did just over a week ago. Context and motivations can only be guessed. (This is where FLO’s independence is key: letting the art speak for itself is easier when there aren’t multiple stakeholders to please.)

Retro musical touches continue across nine brief songs that seem to hover outside time

But while Sault’s more rhythm-forward music comes with a distinct political edge, the music of Sol can be heard as the yin aspect to Sault’s more outgoing yang. Her work is cool, dreamy, downtempo; inward-facing and often consolatory.

Like those before it, her latest record feels like a balm; succour offered in the context of the continuing challenges of living. Sol often sings simply of faith, love and courage – all at play on Heaven. It’s unclear who the title track is addressed to, but it seems to pick up where Mother left off, thanking the almighty for a child.

If Heaven feels a little less cohesive when compared with the unifying themes of Mother, where Sol sang about new parenthood in the context of her experience as a daughter, it’s a short and delicate offering that crystallises her distinct appeal. Here, her butterfly vocals, gossamer instrumentation and stylistic breadth are all allied to a quiet righteousness.

Hard lessons, personal growth and ways to cope all receive an airing in these delicate, matter-of-fact songs that often wrestle with everyday situations. Miss Romantic, by far the poppiest tune here, recalls the 1990s tendency for dishing out advice in R&B form: TLC’s No Scrubs, say, or the work of Lauryn Hill. In response to a love triangle, Sol deploys an iron fist in a velvet glove, redirecting a friend towards self-respect. Her voice climbs to peaks of clarity without resorting to showy melismas.

These retro musical touches – 90s neo-soul, 70s soul fusion, jazz inflections – continue across nine brief songs that seem to hover outside time. Most startling here, stylistically, is the guitar-led Airplane. It borders on 60s folk music. “You will find your power/ Little bird, wait,” Sol counsels.

The road to Heaven has been winding. Sol started off more than a decade ago as a featured vocalist on pop-grime era tracks, via producer DaVinChe. After a hiatus, the singer came back more soulfully in 2018 with an EP called Winter Songs and a more personal set of themes and motivations. Her first album proper, Rose in the Dark (2020), appeared at times to be addressed to her younger self.

Sol doesn’t just dish out advice to others; a great many of her songs are addressed to the mirror. Self is a jazz-inflected plea for self-development, for doing the internal work before trying to “change the world”. (“Ooh, save me, save me from myself,” she sings, featherlight, at the start of the record.)

Related: Cleo Sol: Mother review – intimate, spacious soul-jazz

The core diffidence that pervades the Sault family does crop up in the music too. Old Friends, one of the more direct tracks on Heaven, regretfully calls time on a friendship. “You had my trust and we had choices,” croons Sol delicately, to a simple backing of keys: “But you told my secrets to strangers.”

PR-wise, then, Sol keeps things on the down-low. But she does share with strangers – in the controlled space of her own music, where confessionals about her life, and the lives of those around her, open up generously, full of love and conscious thought. And if these songs occasionally feel underwritten – many are brief, jazzy sketches that seem to wander in and meander back out again – they contrast pointedly with the overwritten, attention-deficit music crafted to punch out on today’s Spotify playlists. Sometimes all you need is a little tenderness.