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

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_COLE_3_ 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.


Album review: Adele's '21'

British chanteuse Adele's voice belies her age 

Critic's Notebook: Lady Gaga, sexuality and 21st century pop: Speaking truth to Camille Paglia

-- 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

Middle photo: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (24)

I find "Rolling in the Deep" to be bland and boring, much like her album.

Sure wish this would've been "Duffy" you were writing about. I simply adored her, her soulful singing style, her petiteness and easy-going way of performing without added show and she is so pretty too. I literally flipped-out when I first heard her sing and saw her, wow, just wow.

Adele is a disappointment to look at performing, very boring...she acts as though she's just going through the motions and bored, she's lifeless.

I think Adele's just fantastic! Loved her performance at the Brits and I think she's one of the most talented musicians today.

One of the top songs of the year who would have thought she could have topped "Chasing Pavements" Hope you get back on tour...... feeling better of course and come to Cincinnati soon!

Having seen Adele perform a few weeks ago in Denver, Colorado, all I can say is without the theatrics of many shows I have seen in the past few months, U2 included, this lady can hold her audience.

To say Adele is boring and lifeless, is a joke, she was full of energy, even though she had just cancelled her MN show due to sickness two days earlier. Laughing and joking with the audience made the 2000 seat venue seem like a one on one show.

I will definitely be traveling to another show, when she ventures back to the states.

Adele is fabulous. I love this review cause its about the music and the artist, the way reviews should be written. I love the idea that Adele will be around for a long time for us to enjoy her very engaging voice. I thought her appearance at the Brit awards was a knock out, very simple, no fuss, just fantastic.

Yes, 'Rolling in the Deep' is amazing but the rest of the CD is just about worthless and I don't think I could go see her live and have her stand there in a black dress on a blank stage and sing for an hour and a half! But I do think there is room for Adele amid the Lady Gaga's and Rihanna's of today just ask Barbra Streisand who didn't do too badly while I enjoyed Diana Ross, Madonna and Cher!

I bought Adele's "21" the other day. I heard her sing Someone Like You on Ellen Degeneres and it stopped me in my tracks. I thought her voice was incredible. Just Adele, a piano and her voice. Nothing else was needed. That is a rarity in this day and age.

Adele is absolutely fantastic! I can sorta see why some find her music bland and such, but I myself enjoy soothing music that has incredibly strong lyrics - unlike today's mainstream music where you can just sing about anything dumb and still make lots of money. Musical quality just isn't really appreciated much anymore, sadly. People are too focused on being the next big "dumb punchline" star..

Hey, Randall, there's room for both Adele and Gaga. Pretty shady to use Adele to slag Gaga.

She is a beautiful and talented woman. She will outlast a Brittany Spears and any Jennifer Lopez. Maybe not Lady GAGA as Lady G is truly talented behind the glitz. But Adele's star will shine because of her and not what she wears.

the british are coming, the british are coming!

When things get out of the control with lady gaga, katy perry, kei$ha: neon lights and little talent...then the Brits come to our ears rescue: Adele and Ellie Goulding, vocal performance fundamentals! how wonderful!

I haven't heard too much of her before only until this week, I heard "Rolling in the deep" while driving and instantly I liked it.

To be honest, only until I saw her picture and videos online, I found that she was a white singer, initially I thought that she was an African-american singer. She has a good voice, but I also think that people like Alicia Keys can match her vocal performance.

People love real music, that is why she is doing so well...especially after the last 20 years of manufactured sound where someones voice takes a back seat.

Lady Gaga is a joke. She is all marketing and thrives on being controversial, not talented or original. Madonna 2.0, eh?

I'm not the biggest Gaga fan, but people-she can sing. Why is it so hard for some people to accept that someone could be a talented musician but still make music that you don't like? People just insist that she has no talent because that fits with the narrative, but it's just plain not true. She is a technically skilled singer. Now an honest criticism of her songs, concerts, videos, or overall image, I would welcome, but give credit where credit is due if you want people to take you seriously.

I love Adele and her songs. It's the simplicity of it, which is truly very rare nowadays and because of the overload of the likes of Lady Gaga and gang, Adele comes off boring to some. To each their own but I would like to say that if Lady Gaga can sing, she wouldn't need all that gimmicks to hide it. Madonna did all of that and then some but at least she had good songs and good lyrics to back up all her soap operatic antics. Can't say the same about Lady Gaga and gang.

I bought Adeles "21" album after viewing her video. I love the entire album. I love the simplicity of her sound, reminded me of Amy Winehouse, and her smoky voice. I was surprised to find out she was a Brit and not from the American south. I think she will do well in her career.
Lady Gaga has a good voice, talented, but she is little too over the top for me to listen to all the time. I have listened to Adele several times, and find her refreshing after all the pop synth noise of late.

Adele is nothing near Jessie Baylin.

The best article written about music in the Los Angeles Times in a very, very long time. It reminded me of Robert Hilburn's articles of yesteryear! So I suppose Mr. Randall Roberts can take a bow for the last sentence was meant to be taken as a compliment.

I'd like to thank the Los Angeles Times for keeping the flame alive, so to speak, when it comes to good writing and reporting. And just like Adele, it is refreshing and inspiring to know that there are critics, and writers alike, who "trump" those who offer biased, mindless comments and "raves" about the famous and infamous who seem to possess everything but real talent.

Kudos to Adele for bringing joy into my life with her songs and voice. And to Los Angeles Times for keeping me well informed!!!

This girl is so beautiful.

lady gaga is scarry...

I absolutely LOVE her voice--the raspy, bluesy, awesome simpleness of raw talent that has been missed! She doesn't need theatrics to showcase her raw talent, she is ADELE, and man, what amazing natural talent!

I too have to agree that Adele's visual performance is lifeless. While I love "Rolling In The Deep" I believe Haley Reinhard's version on American Idol was a much better performance.


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