A Young Woman Reflects, Sorrow as Treasured Gold: Adele at 21

By Daniel Garrett

Adele, 21
XL Recordings, 2011
(Distributed by Columbia Records/Sony)

Wary, amused, curious, sympathetic, bold, friendly, remorseful, generous, vulnerable, wise—those are the notes, the states, that the funny, plain-talking British singer-songwriter Adele Laurie Blue Adkins sounds in her song “Someone Like You,” one composition from an album, 21, in which elements of rock, soul, rhythm-and-blues, and ballads can be heard.  “Someone Like You” is a song that moves into your ears, into your mind, into your memory, into your spirit.  The BRIT School graduate Adele Adkins has been welcomed by many people, first with her song “Chasing Pavements” and album 19, and then with 21.  Adele is renewing the power of music, of art; through beauty she is giving us truth, and through truth she is giving us beauty.  (Adele’s album 21 winning six Grammy awards, some of the music industry’s highest laurels, was expected, like the granting of gold garlands at the end of an entertaining and winning race.)  Adele has not arrived too soon; she has arrived at a time when we have lost and are losing some significant talent, such as Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston.  There are few artists with the skill or substance to bring people together; and Adele is one of the special ones.  Her album 21 is full of good songs, particularly “Rolling in the Deep,” “Rumour Has It,” “Don’t You Remember,”  “Set Fire to the Rain,” and “He Won’t Go.”  May time and grace be on her side.

“There’s a fire starting in my heart,” sings Adele Adkins in “Rolling in the Deep,” the first single from the album, the song that was as much an announcement as Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” or Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know.”  Yet, if I were to guess Adele’s musical lineage I would identify Barbra Streisand, Dusty Springfield, Carly Simon, Annie Lennox, Sinead O’Connor, and Mariah Carey.  However, Adele herself has named Etta James and Aretha Franklin as singers she admires.  The album 21, inspired by a failed relationship, begins with the song “Rolling in the Deep” on a dramatic high, the way certain films and novels do.  In “Rolling in the Deep,” human emotion is transformed into drama, force, and wisdom; and the singer as narrator, after recognizing the scars of love, threatens, “I’m gonna make your head burn,” and yet she claims, “I can’t help feeling that we could have had it all.”

On 21, Adele’s “Rumour Has It,” about betrayal in love, is a song with rocking rhythm and a ballad interlude that works both as private and public speech, as a lover’s argument, as a friend’s advice, as social gossip.  It is another thumper of a song, one in which Adele sings, “Sure, she’s got it all, but baby is that what you want?”  (That made me laugh.)  The singer who acknowledges that “people say crazy things” presents herself as sharing in duplicity: “just ’cause I said it, don’t mean that I meant it.”  It is that kind of self-awareness that enriches the exploration of romantic themes.  In “Turning Tables,” featuring voice and piano and strings, there is more romantic struggle, fighting and the determination to survive.  Adele pronounces certain words as if they contained a world of meaning, giving each a great and singular weight; and the listener can hear, here and elsewhere, how much Adele pushes her voice.  (That she would suffer some throat damage could not surprise.)

The singer as narrator acknowledges her limitations—a fickle heart, bitterness, a wandering eye, a heaviness in her head—in a song about separation and memory, the voice and guitar ballad “Don’t You Remember,” with a bluesy-country tone.  The narrator faces a dishonest, game-playing lover and imagines both revenge and reconciliation in “Set Fire to the Rain.”  One perceives several things, even contradictory things, about Adele’s passionate and innately theatrical singing: Adele’s voice sounds large enough for the listener to enter it, to find refuge there; and at the same time, her forceful enunciation is pushing each word into the listener’s brain, entering him, dominating him.  “I set fire to the rain,” she sings, strangely, and one can believe it.

Adele has a strong sense of vocal rhythm, even amid slowly sung phrases; and that is evident in “He Won’t Go,” in which a woman feels compelled to stay in a relationship though she no longer recognizes her lover, now a broken, vacant boy; and musically the song, which begins with both martial rhythm and piano notes, seems a mix of genres, rock and ballad and rhythm-and-blues.  Adele enters that song with calm descriptions, soon stating, “My dignity’s become undone” and “if this ain’t love, then what is?”  She and her lover have changed, both made worse by their contact; and the sound climbs and dips.  “Maybe you got too used to having me around” and “don’t look back at this crumbling fool,” sings Adele in the gospel-touched ballad “Take It All.”  There are edges where blues and wild gospel touch; and, hearing “Take It All,” I thought a little of the blues-influenced rock singer Janis Joplin.  “Take it all with my love” and “I thought you loved me more than this,” Adele sings.

Over a shuffling beat, in a song full of the kind of promises that are easy to betray, in “I’ll Be Waiting” are declarations of love and loyalty despite separation, the kind of song Carole King, Laura Nyro, and Dusty Springfield would recognize.  With a slowed-down beat and twang, “One and Only” is another nod in the direction of country music, but the song contains a refrain sung and repeated in a clear low voice, like a hymn: “I know it ain’t easy giving up your heart,” and then Adele adds, “Nobody’s perfect,” the wisdom to which we all come in the end though it is where we should begin.  Adele brings together drama and groove, pleasure and seriousness; and there is such a strong sense of purpose, of urgent emotion, in her songs that the purpose seems found rather than invested.  That may be part of why her work feels not merely compelling but addicting.  “I will always love you” and “You make me feel like I am clean again” sings Adele in another song on 21, “Lovesong,” which has a relaxed Latin feel; and, also, in it, Adele sings, “Whenever I’m alone with you, you make me feel like I am fun again.”  And then, at last, there is the great ballad “Someone Like You.”

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art.  He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.

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