Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why I Don't Think Adele Is the Best Thing Ever

Put down those sticks and stones. I'm about to say something that may result in tons of criticism, if not outright broken bones.

I am not in love with Adele.

There, I said it.

Don't let me be misunderstood: Man cannot live on Katy Perry, Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Britney Spears alone, and for that, I will be eternally grateful to Adele for making the Top 10 classy again. When the dust of the 2010s settles sometime around the summer of 2020, "Rolling in the Deep" will go down as one of the most electrifying singles of the decade. It proved that you don't have to look and sound cookie-cutter to hit number one (twice! in one year!) on Billboard's Hot 100.

That said, Adele's massive second album, 21, the biggest seller of 2011, is not the savior of pop that everyone seems intent on making it out to be. My best friend recently compared it to George Michael's Listen Without Prejudice Vol. I, a daring work of auteurism -- Michael wrote, arranged, produced and performed it almost in its entirety -- that 21 can't come close to matching in terms of sheer pop iconoclasm.

Few albums begin as promisingly as "Rolling in the Deep" and "Rumour Has It," but 21 ebbs and flows creatively over the course of the remaining nine songs. No, it's not Katy Perry's Teenage Dream, but that doesn't make it groundbreaking. For every display of musical cojones (the aforementioned tracks 1 and 2), there are several of utter, middle-of-the-road safeness elevated only by the sheer power of Adele's voice. If you're going to cover a Cure song (and why more artists haven't done so is beyond me), why not go for something a bit more surprising and challenging than "Lovesong," the band's biggest hit?

Take a closer look -- or rather listen very closely to -- "Someone Like You," the second No. 1 single from 21. Yes, Adele's vocals are, as always, utter perfection, but beyond that, what you've got is a fairly routine piano ballad about love lost. Melissa Manchester used to crank this stuff out in her sleep in the '70s.

Yes, it classes up the Top 10 a bit, but I've never been a sucker for a power ballad, especially one masquerading as a defining moment in musical art.

Yes, a girl bringing on the heartbreak by singing while accompanying herself on the piano is a beautiful thing indeed (see Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, Fiona Apple and Lady Gaga, among others), but really, it's been done to death over the years, frequently better than Adele on "Someone Like You" (see Aretha Franklin, below).

Give me a beat!

From day one, "Someone Like You" was never a 21 favorite of mine. Though I respect it as an example of sturdy songcraft, frankly, it kind of bores me. I first noticed the chinks in its drowsy production when I arrived in Bangkok in July and started hearing it on dance floors all over town, only with a heavy backbeat replacing those tremulous piano notes. Finally, I was able to listen to it without nodding off. (Bruno Mars' "Grenade," so similar in love-martyr tone, was improved in a comparable fashion.) I'd always felt the title "Someone Like You" was more worthy of the disco-diva than tortured-songbird treatment -- or maybe those were just my suppressed memories of the late great Sylvester's fabulous 1986 single of the same name.

My disregard for "Someone Like You" in its original album form was cemented when I watched the mash-up of "Rumor Has It" and "Someone Like You" on the November 15 episode of Glee. I might be in the minority when I say that I like Glee more for its uniquely dramedic take on life as a high school outsider than for its music, but perhaps for the first time ever, I preferred the Glee version of a song featured on the show. Why hadn't Adele and "Someone Like You" co-producer Dan Wilson (formerly of Semisonic, whose "Closing Time" is one of my fondest memories of late-'90s pop-rock) thought of adding that nasty beat?

The truth is, Adele impresses me most when she's being slightly quirky (which is why, as a whole, I prefer 19, her Grammy-winning 2008 debut, to 21), or when she's riding a solid groove. That's what made "Rolling in the Deep" such a triumph, and why "He Won't Go" and "Rumour Has It" are right behind it as my favorite tracks on 21, which is as destined for an Album of the Year Grammy as any grand opus in the history of pop, though not because it's nearly as great as Carole King's Tapestry, Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life, Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, U2's The Joshua Tree, George Michael's Faith, or The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, to name a few truly deserving and game-changing previous winners.

Alas, instead of "Rumour Has It" as the third U.S. single from 21, Adele's label, Columbia Records, is going with "Set Fire to the Rain," which I suppose is better than "Turning Tables," which has already gotten the Glee treatment, courtesy of Gwyneth Paltrow. The powers that be at Columbia Records say that it researched slightly better than "Rumour Has It" (translation: Radio programmers are more likely to play it) and therefore is a potentially bigger hit. Which means that, sadly, they are already forcing Adele to embrace convention and the easy hit. Surely market tests didn't indicate how huge "Rolling in the Deep" would be. What's next? A weight-loss plan and a sexy-slutty makeover?

Ok, maybe I'm pushing it there. "Set Fire to the Rain" is a perfectly fine song, and thankfully, a bit more forceful than "Someone Like You." But if you don't mind, I think I'll sit this one out until "Rumour Has It" (hopefully) comes around next to get me off my ass and excited about Adele again.


ThisGirl Lori said...

Well written as usual, this piece contains many good points. But as the best friend who compared Adele's 21 to the George Michael of Listen Without Prejudice, I disagree with a lot of them too. Adele's vocals are That Good on "Someone Like You" that the piano needn't be intricate (though I loved your comment that Melissa Manchester used to write tunes like this in her sleep). Also, I like this album front to back the way I did some of my all-time favorites -- Alanis' Jagged Little Pill just sprung to mind ("Someone Like You" is basically "You Oughtta Know" without the oral sex), and, yes, George's Prejudice and also Faith. Maybe its juxtaposition next to mindless pop makes it shine all the brighter (though I like a lot of it -- Katy Perry's songs will come to define the decade when we look back in years to come). Still, 21 has such stunning vocal arrangements that they alone make it an instant classic. When I heard Adele sing "Someone Like You" at the otherwise pathetic MTV Video Music Awards, there was musical accompaniment, but she may as well have been singing a capella -- she seemed to only be accompanying herself. The fact that you like the "quirkier" 19 speaks to your personal preference, the way some people like U2 better before the Joshua Tree. If they're really being honest, they must admit that favorites like "Sunday Bloody Sunday" don't hold a candle to "Where the Streets Have No Name." That's how I'm feeling about 19 and 21. Only time will tell if that theory holds for the long haul.

Jeremy Helligar said...

I love what you have to say here, Lori, especially since your opinion always comes with tons of knowledge and cold hard facts. I remember being with you in Jersey of last year, and we were both in total awe of the La Roux album. I wish I felt the way about 21 the way I felt about La Roux's debut or Duffy's Rockferry or Amy Winehouse's Back to Black (possibly the greatest sophomore album since Terence Trent D'Arby's terribly underrated Neither Fish Nor Flesh), all of which I feel are far superior albums.

I do like a lot of 21, but I just wish Adele were a bit less mainstream in both her music and in the presentation of her emotion. I think Alanis is a great comparison. I was never a huge fan of Jagged Little Pill, but i realize how important it was to the pop movement of the time. I see that as being the Teenage Dream of its time. In 20 years, we WILL remember Teenage Dream, but like Jagged Little Pill, it will sound like a relic of its time. It's good but not timeless music.

As for 19 vs. 21, I think to even suggest that 21 is Adele's Joshua Tree is way premature. I believe Adele might have a Joshua Tree in her (which will see her streamlining her number of collaborators!), but it's still germinating. And if it includes a Cure cover from Disintegration, it will be Lullabye, which I always thought should have been their signature hit.

Totally off topic, I've been wanting to talk about D2 a lot in the last few days, but I haven't said (written) anything yet. Duran Duran's first album is one of the great undervalued debut albums of all-time. "Sound of Thunder" is genius!

Jeremy Helligar said...

P.S. You Oughtta Know is too angry and vengeful to be Somone Like You. Rumor Has It is the You Oughtta Know of 21. Columbia Records are fools for not making it the next single.