No one foresaw that Adele would become the biggest star in the music world.
In 2008, she was part of the mini-boom of British, female, retro-pop/blue-eyed soul singers that followed the breakthrough international success of Amy Winehouse. But while peers like Duffy or Kate Nash either faded after initial success or never quite hit it big, Adele emerged as a genuine global phenomenon with her second album, 21.
Heartbreak helped. Lyrics exploring the regret of love gone wrong, coupled with Adele’s powerful, soul-infused delivery struck a chord with a genre-crossing foursquare audience. The singer’s earthy, endearing personality and infectious humor won her legions of devoted fans. But it was the songs that kept them loyal. Few singer/songwriters have managed to translate something so personal into something so universal quite the way Adele has.
With the release of her new album, we take a look back at the Adele discography.
Adele: 19 (2008)
Adele delivered a confident, accomplished debut with 19. The song settings may have been retro-flavored, but Adele used her broad range and expressive singing style (as influenced by jazz and blues as it was by classic pop and rock) to communicate a thoroughly modern perspective. The collection’s biggest hit, languid ballad “Chasing Pavements,” was a good calling card for American audiences and stood out among the histrionic radio competition of the moment. Dramatic closing ballad “Hometown Glory” may have been 19’s best song, one that did the most effective job of representing the singer. The bossa nova-flavored “Right As Rain” and the slinky “My Same” were other highlights, as was Adele’s gentle reading of Bob Dylan’s oft-covered “Make You Feel My Love.” 19 did a good job of introducing Adele to a global audience, but almost no one could have predicted what would follow.
Adele: 21 (2011)
How often does one album single-handedly reverse years of declining industry sales? Adele did it with her second release, 21, one of the biggest albums of the past decade. 21 was built on a trio of massive #1 singles that conquered a variety of radio formats. Towering opener “Rolling in the Deep” unleashed the full power of Adele’s massive voice in a lacerating condemnation to an ex-lover. It was balanced by the nostalgic heartbreak of the shimmering “Someone Like You.” And in between was the complex, mid-tempo scorcher “Set Fire To the Rain.” But 21 was more than its hits. It was a complex song cycle of heartbreak and regret, with glimmers of hope tucked into the corners. Adele was fantastic throughout, easily moving from the rollicking rock strut of “Rumour Has It” to the gentle plaint of “Don’t You Remember” and the skittering relationship implosion of “Turning Tables.” Her retro influences were most strongly felt on “One and Only,” one of the collection’s few moments of optimism, and the jazzy moments “I’ll Be Waiting” and “He Won’t Go.” It was all capped by the stunning ballad “Take It All,” a heartbroken declaration of the end. 21 was a massive global seller that gobbled up just about every award in sight. It’s a modern standard that’s all but mandatory listening.
Adele: Live at the Royal Albert Hall (2011)
Adele delivered a concert CD/DVD that showed off what a compelling live performer she is. Live at the Royal Albert Hall featured most of 21 and a selection of strong cuts from 19, plus a couple of well-chosen covers (“I Can’t Make You Love Me,” “If It Hadn’t Been for Love”). Live wasn’t looking to re-create the studio sound of the songs. Instead, the arrangements were streamlined, with pianist Miles Robertson carrying the bulk of the instrumental load. Adele’s well-publicized vocal cord issues forced her to work in her lower register and hold back on some of the fireworks. Far from being a hindrance, that restraint worked in the singer’s favor. Different facets of the compositions took the spotlight and many performances highlighted Adele’s jazz and soul influences. The singer focused on other tools in her vocal repertoire (like her bluesy growl and unique phrasing) and made good use of her excellent back-up singers. Plus “Rolling in the Deep” and “Someone Like You” featured the almost inevitable crowd singalongs. The full concert was featured on the DVD version, which added several songs and demonstrated what an entertaining storyteller Adele can be. Her bawdy humor and earthy persona were on full, winning display. Live at the Royal Albert Hall is a nice way for the singer’s many fans who haven’t had the opportunity to hear her live to get that experience.
Adele: “Skyfall” (2012)
Adele managed the feat of crafting a James Bond theme that incorporated the classic musical motifs of the venerable movie series and yet still sounded like an Adele song. “Skyfall” was dramatic and towering, brushing up against camp without quite barreling over that line. It was a fun moment that scored Adele a big multi-format hit (the first Bond theme in ages to see serious chart action) and an Oscar. Not a bad distraction while she tried to figure out a direction for her next album.
Adele: 25 (2015)
Adele took nearly five years to craft the proper sequel to global phenomenon 21. Following up such a massive success is never easy and the singer/songwriter acknowledged struggles to write songs she found meaningful. The success of 21 presented a whole raft of new issues for Adele. Expectations for the follow-up were stratospheric. She had to contend with a horde of A-list co-writers and producers eager to put their own stamps on the singer. And detractors were practically frothing at the opportunity to declare the new album “inferior to 21.” By the time that Adele finally delivered 25, the pressure was on.
25 wisely doesn’t try to either top or re-create 21. Either would have been a losing proposition. But neither does Adele strike out in some shocking new direction. 25 adds new stylistic touches, but the bedrock remains retro-influenced pop and rock and Adele’s soaring voice and vivid, engaging personality, which cut through everything else. So additions like a tropical flair on the cheeky “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” or the Latin lilt of the regret-drenched “Million Years Ago” are subtle tweaks. The latter even makes good use of Adele’s lower register. The production adds more prominent rhythm lines to add momentum to cuts like “I Miss You” and “Water Under the Bridge.” Adele dabbles in fusing other genres into her sound, like the gospel-pop of the excellent “River Lea,” and even feints toward prog rock on expansive album closer “Sweetest Devotion,” with good results.
But the bedrock of 25 is the “Adele plus piano” formula that’s still a winner. Lead single “Hello,” the kind of high impact, rip-your-guts-out ballad that made Adele’s rep, quickly conquered multiple radio formats and deservedly so. It’s big and compelling without being a 21 retread. The beautiful, retro-soul fueled “When We Were Young” is already primed as the follow-up. Sterling ballads like “Remedy,” “Love in the Dark” and “All I Ask” are firmly in the singer’s wheelhouse and come across quite well.
So no, 25 isn’t the revelation that 21 was. It has to settle for “merely” being a very good album full of well-written songs (nary a clunker in the bunch) that Adele delivers with conviction, style and passion. It’s an engaging winner that will keep Adele front-and-center on the music scene for a long run.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on November 24, 2015.