This is what 21 years sound like

Saturday April 23 2011


Aesthetically, chart success and sales are very misleading. Westlife, Irish boy-band princes of emotive pop and assembly line music, had their first seven singles jump straight to number one in Britain and Ireland and have gone on to sell over 44 million records worldwide. Last year, Katy Perry’s second album and Ke$ha’s debut, Animal, debuted at the top of the American charts with Perry’s California Gurls producing four number ones, one of nine albums to ever do that. This happened in the same year that I Learned the Hard Way by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings was released.

That’s why the success of Adele Adkin’s 21, her second album, is heartening. It has sold two million copies in just 87 days, tying with Dido’s Life For Rent for second fastest selling UK album ever. 21 also spent 11 weeks at the top of the charts in her native UK and four weeks in the US, a market UK acts have always had difficulty scaling.

Adele, unlike Perry or Ke$ha, can really sing. Plus sized and possessing an unapologetic candour, it’s her powerful and pliable voice that has carried her to the top in an industry teeming with flashy, larger-than-life prima donnas. In a recent interview with the Rolling Stone, she candidly outlined those qualities; “I love seeing Katy Perry’s boobs and bum. Love it. But that’s not what my music is about. I don’t make music for eyes. I make music for ears.”

21, released in January, continues with the blueprint of her first album, 19 (both albums are named for the age at which she wrote them), minimalist and influenced by the classic Motown sound. However, the influences of American country music and bossa nova (a style of popular Brazilian music derived from the samba but with more melodic and harmonic complexity and less emphasis on percussion) are evident on Don’t You Remember and Lovesong, giving a nuanced variety and maturity to the album. The lead single off the album and undoubtedly the best of the eleven, Rolling in the Deep, immediately grabs you and refuses to let go. Not that you would want it to. It’s a stomper of a song, delivered with a heavenly bluesy voice to groovy piano beats, handclaps and a high tempo bass drum, accompanied by a consummate choir.

“Baby I have no story to be told/ But I’ve heard one on you and I’m gonna make your head burn/ Think of me in the depths of your despair/ Making a home down there/ as mine sure won’t be shared,” she sings on Rolling in the Deep, a scorned, unforgiving lover. What strikes you on this song and the rest of the album, which she wrote all by herself, is the depth and maturity of the lyrics. The songs, she told the Rolling Stone, were inspired by a break-up with her boyfriend. All through, she frankly ruminates about revenge, regret and heartbreak and finally coming to terms with the break-up on Someone Like You, the last song. Soul music is usually about turning pain into funky beauty and on this album she excels with an admirable depth.

At only 22 it’s frightening to think what she could become, the heights she could scale. Or, she could taper off like Amy Winehouse or infuse more pop into her sound, diluting and cheapening it. At the moment though, 21 is the best album of the year so far and it’s hard seeing anyone topple it. She won two Grammy Awards for 19 in 2009 but she’s definitely going to improve that immensely. Thing is, I don’t feel any pity for whoever she’ll be nominated with the next time round: she deserves everything.