Album review: Adele/‘21’

Posted: January 9, 2012 in Album review: rock

When compared (obviously just once too often) to Amy Winehouse, Adele Laurie Blue Adkins tartly declared “We’re a gender, not a genre”. Pretty cool, and very on the money.

To the millions who have helped her top any chart you can think of, she is better known as Adele and she is no Amy Winehouse. Whereas Winehouse’s music, especially the Mark Ronson produced smash “Back to Black” was very in your face, with arrangements sailing close to Motown pastiche, Adele’s output is far more inward, pained and – ok, I’ll say it – real.

Her previous album, “19”, was startling in its maturity and pop smarts and, after a single Saturday Night Live appearance in 2008, went gold in the US, selling millions. A whirlwind of ultra-high spot-lit publicity, awards and media madness followed.

Adele’s 2011 album, “21” (named to express her progression as an artist) was inspired by the tour bus music during her “19” tour. Driving through the American South, the driver played non-stop contemporary Nashville country music, and something in this music excited Adele when she started to write the tunes for “21”. Both Country and Soul are storytelling musics, they are both rooted in blues – black and white blues – and both are true tests and platforms for singers that can wring high emotion from simplicity.

But don’t expect any keening pedal-steel guitars or Grand Ol Opry concessions – the template for the arrangements on “21” is still a tough, spare funk on the cookers and a big, gospel heart on the ballads. Gone are the minimal arrangements such as “19”’s “Daydreamer” or the celeste-and-voice “First Love”. Recorded with various producers across London and Rick Rubin in California, the album has a lush and luscious sound recalling old-school analogue flavours but without the post-modern Mark Ronson tricks.

As with true Soul, as with Country, the songs and the singer come first.

Mega-hit opener (Number One in 8 countries when it hit) “Rolling in the Deep” is an irresistible gospel shouter, complete with soul choir. As a song it is one of those rare radio favourites that one actually enjoys having stuck in one’s head. Adele’s voice sits perfectly in this churchy setting – deep, sonorous, with a hoarse burr around its edge that she uses to great effect. Like Mavis Staples, Adele is one of those great singers who is in complete control and yet pushes constantly at the edge of losing it. Very exciting stuff.

The power ballad “Turning Tables” is one of two songs here that exposes its Country music inspirations – torchy and dramatic, full of light and shade in the delivery. One can hear the potential for a high, lonesome pedal steel here but, of course, it is not there. A masterstroke of this arrangement is hold bass and drums out of it entirely, even when the piano and strings are chugging. The other Nashville-weepy song is “Don’t You Remember” which could easily become a country standard. Beginning with gentle finger picked guitar, it bursts open at the chorus to a hook that, with cheerier lyrics, could become the wedding song of the decade (in a good way).

But from there on, it is back to the city – “Set Fire to the Rain”’s Phil Spector rock rush, the funky block-chord syncopation of “He Won’t Go”, the lazy funk of “I’ll Be Waiting” (another joyous hook). By the time we are through the album’s closer “Someone Like You” we are wrung out. A little like the audience leaving her Beacon Theatre concert in New York which were described as “a varied blend as they shuffle to the exits – some are tearstained, some are whistling.”

Once again it seems that British Soul – more specifically, the New Wave of British Soul (the beginnings of which can be traced to the All Saints 1997 hit “Never Ever”) – is giving US Soul (R’n’B) a real run for its money. Apart from maybe Alicia Keys, the British divas – the Duffys, Winehouses and Adeles – are showing their American counterparts how it is done, and seemingly effortlessly.

How? By going back to Soul first-principles, baby.

And to hear these first principles in the raw, make sure you check this LP out on vinyl. The rich, overloaded bass, the rim-shots, the dripping strings, – all sound colours inspired by Motown, Atlantic, Abbey Road – as well as the cracks and depths in Adele’s voice are just suited so well to the vinyl medium.

Popularity is impossible to truly define – mega-platinum, chart-busting, loony-level popularity even more so. Adele’s lyrics are simple, clichéd, obvious and often trite. But that never did Paul McCartney any harm and, like some of the most enduring music of the 20th/21st century, it is how those lyrics are wrapped that counts. A great song, delivered by an arresting voice, can subsume simple lyrics into a thing of magic.

And direct lyrics that speak of common experience can ensure a vast audience that might not be made up entirely of record reviewers and other smart arses. Adele truly deserves every record she has sold.

Published August 2011 on


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