Critic’s Notebook: Adele’s quiet power amid the pop girl riot

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With a hit album and single, she shows how a strong voice can top glitz any time.

Imagine the pop music marketplace in summer 2011 as an extravagant, glitzy party, a bacchanal in a Vegas ballroom. Mirror balls spin as the sonic bombast pushes into the sparkling throng, lasers cutting the space with red, dancers laughing and screaming, reckless joy and cocktails flying.


The women are dressed in their richest peacock best. There’s Lady Gaga in a deconstructed Christian Lacroix gown, Rihanna‘s in a corner wearing S&M leather, Katy Perry with her skirt so short that it could be a belt, Beyoncé's beauty shining and Ke$ha in a leopard print something-or-other.

Into this chaos glides Adele Laurie Blue Adkins, alone, with a show-stopping grace and penetrating green eyes, full-figured and fearless, in an elegant evening gown and a string of pearls, unconcerned with eclipsing the princesses and queens. So self-assured as to silence the room, all heads turning, her presence negating the rhinestones and ridiculousness. Whispers.

That’s one way to understand British singer Adele’s breathtaking arrival into America’s consciousness over the last three years. Another way is to play her “Rolling in the Deep” — No.1 on the singles chart for the fifth straight week — very loud and listen to a pearl of a pop song that combines essential ingredients of the Western popular music canon. So much funky, dynamic unity drives “Rolling in the Deep” that after it’s over you want to hear it again because it’ll be a different kind of great next time around.

The song’s a humming machine of R&B: the strummed acoustic guitar opening, that thumping rock ‘n’ roll rhythm, the claps, the choir doing call-and-response in the background, the teeny curlicue of guitar that sneaks in from time to time, the bass occupying the “deep” of the title, the counterpoint piano punctuating as if from a Memphis church, snare drum, not sounding chaotic like so much of Gaga’s “Born This Way” but offered with an effortless confidence. (Another metaphor: If pop music is an automobile, Lady Gaga fancies herself a souped-up Ed “Big Daddy” Roth two-seater muscle car, and Adele is a black Cadillac sedan, so comfortable on the inside.)

That’s no small feat coming from a young British singer, born in North London to a teenage mother in 1988 and discovered on MySpace in 2007. Along with the dear (chemically) departed Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone (currently working with Mick Jagger), and Welsh singer Duffy and her curiously strong pipes, Adele is part of a small group of female British singers who over the past half-decade have drawn from vocalists as diverse as Mary J. Blige, Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin and Ann Peebles to create new soul music.

Adele, especially, has struck a chord in America — best new artist and best female pop vocal performance Grammys in 2009 as well as record of the year and song of the year nominations for “Chasing Pavements” — by drawing on a sound that’s embedded in this country’s collective DNA. She was to showcase her new music during two sold-out shows last week in Los Angeles but canceled them and the rest of her American tour dates because of laryngitis; her doctors recommended “absolute voice rest,” according to a statement issued by her label, Columbia Records.

Although Lady Gaga’s spring marketing blitz got most of the attention, it was Adele’s second album, “21,” that held the top spot on the charts for the two months before the May 23 release of “Born This Way.” And while Gaga’s album easily bumped “21” off the top — Amazon selling it for 99 cents didn’t hurt — “Rolling in the Deep” has had a notable life on the singles chart.

You can almost hear the word of mouth spreading: charts first on Christmas Day at No.68, reappears at No.97 a month later, the following week 84, then 69, then 64 on Feb. 19, creeping gradually over the next month until what seemed to be a peak at No.13 on March 12. The song dropped into the teens over the next month until finally, on May 21, after two consecutive weeks at No.2, it hit No.1, where it has remained ever since. (Without going all wonky, the same thing happened with Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” in spring 1967: It entered low, then roller-coastered over the next two months until, as if the marketplace had heard the song’s message, it landed at No.1 on June 3, 44 years ago last week.)

The reason, a musical truism: All the bombast in the world can’t compete with a precisely held note — especially when the phrase that the singer Adele is delivering is a furious, emotional cry of “We could have had it all!”

Another thing: Despite its current obsession with synthetic, driving beats, the marketplace still responds to an honest, true pop album with a beating heart and raw emotion driving it.

It’s her voice, in both senses of the word, that makes “21” and Adele’s success seem so inevitable. Not only the way she extends a note a beat longer than it could be, as if to stress the meaning within, without any melisma or bravado, but also how her impact stems from the way she channeled her strength, wounded after a breakup with her boyfriend in 2008, into emotionally raw and open expression that reverberates across gender, ethnicity and geographic distance. She’s still young, yes, and her lyrics, which she co-wrote with a team of more seasoned hitmakers, including Dan Wilson and Paul Epworth, need more refining and precision — less generality, more poetic specificity. But despite the occasional clumsy couplet, the young singer’s restraint is admirable.

Restraint, in fact, seems a dirty word in 2011, but it’s the perfect foil for sonic excess. It’s nice to witness an elegant, smart woman waltz into the party and halt all noise — as thrilling and life-affirming as celebration can be — with her mere presence: “Baby, I have no story to be told,” she explains in the pivotal verse of “Rolling,” “but I’ve heard one on you and I’m gonna make your head burn/ Think of me in the depths of your despair/ Make a home down there as mine sure won’t be shared.”

That single declaration — “I’m gonna make your head burn” — resonates more powerfully than a thousand Gaga Perry explosions; honesty trumps artifice in the long run. And considering that the album’s title is “21,” the singer’s age when she recorded it, just think about the potential in her future records: not only 28 and 34, but, if we’re lucky, 42, 51, 66, 72, 88 and 99 too.


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-- Randall Roberts

ON A HIGH NOTE: British singer Adele’s song “Rolling in the Deep” has been No. 1 for five weeks in a row. Photo by Paul Bergen / Redferns