Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit Adele’s earth-shattering 2011 album, granting the British torch singer entrée into the pantheon of iconic pop vocalists.
The green room was full of Adeles, nails all long and painted, hairdos puffed into the singer’s signature beehive. The BBC had corralled a cluster of impersonators into an experiment; they thought they were at an audition. But the real Adele was among them, disguised, plastered in a fake nose and chin, joining in on their jokes about how long it was taking her to release a new album.
It was 2015, and for years, Adele had been everywhere. Signed to the British label XL at age 18, after a track her friend uploaded to MySpace gained attention, she released her debut album, 19, two years after graduating from the lauded BRIT School. It went triple platinum in the U.S. and catalyzed an almost feverish mass adoration. She pouted on the cover of Vogue, she belted on SNL, she swept the Grammys, she soundtracked James Bond. Adele never seemed to cast herself as an archetypal pop star—in interviews, she was giggly and crass, and often deployed what critics and fans called a “cackle.” In one of the few declarations of her pop supremacy, she held out on releasing her 2015 album, 25, to streaming services, a move then only wielded by artists like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. The gamble worked: People bought her physical records in droves, with such a fervor that some thought maybe Adele had single-handedly saved the industry.
While her first album garnered Adele international attention, her 2011 follow-up, 21 catapulted her into the Guinness Book of World Records—21 is reportedly the longest-running No. 1 album by a female solo artist in the history of U.S. and UK charts. The album cemented her legacy as an artist who could make once-in-a-generation milestones out of her music. 21 is filled with colossal songs, elegant and glistening, bending but never breaking under the heft of Adele’s voice, which sounds like Amy Winehouse mashed with opera. (Adele said that she owed “90%” of her career to Amy Winehouse, before a concert on what would have been Winehouse’s 33rd birthday.)
Beyond the similarities to Winehouse, though—the gritty, growled vocals that could stretch into big belted notes, often over jazzy piano—Adele seemed like a pop star flung out of social or temporal context. She swirled together soul and pop and jazz; Adele said she turned to country while writing the record. She revered Etta James as a kid. The first concert she went to was the Cure, with her mom, and her cover of “Lovesong” on 21 quivers and crawls, hovers above a scratch, one of the more subdued tracks on the album. “She takes you to places other artists don’t go to anymore—the way they did in the 70s,” Beyoncé said about her. Adele crafted her songs intentionally to be timeless—“I want to sing these songs when I’m 70 fuckin’ years old,” she told Vanity Fair.
Maybe too much credit has been given to Adele for ushering in a resurgence of the ballad—Bruno Mars’ grating “Grenade” had been climbing the charts around the same time—but there was something baffling about hearing her on the radio slotted between the hyperactive neon rush of the Black Eyed Peas and Katy Perry. A year before 21, Kesha released her glitter torpedo of an album full of breakups, blackouts, and tirades over texts. The trope of slickly calibrated female self-destruction, almost always conveyed through performative partying, would radiate throughout pop over the next decade, but never breach Adele’s songs. This is also what differentiated her from Winehouse: on 21 especially, she is desperate to tear down so much, but always protects herself.
21 isn’t exactly a concept album, but it collects the songs Adele wrote at that age, centering around the dissolution of what she would call a “rubbish relationship.” She wrote 21 over a three month period, usually when she was wasted— “I was completely off my face writing that album,” she told Vanity Fair, “and a drunk tongue is an honest one.” She would go through two bottles of wine and chain-smoke while writing the lyrics, then look back at what she’d scrawled down in the morning. The emotional intensity scarred her. “How I felt when I wrote 21, I wouldn’t want to feel again,” she told The New York Times a few years later “I was miserable, I was lonely, I was sad, I was angry, I was bitter. I thought I was going to be single for the rest of my life. I thought I was never going to love again.”
If there’s an inflection of melodrama in these songs, it’s because of those high stakes. She sings in absolutes, then rushes to fill in the nuance. Adele wrote “Set Fire to the Rain” to be a camp anthem for a queer audience, but its sonic surcharge and all-or-nothing lyrics (“I was over/Until you kissed my lips, and you saved me”) are at home on the album, nestled between titanic high notes that roar over cinematic piano and pleas about love dying. Listening to the album in one go can feel a bit draining, the weight of all these grandiose melodies slumped atop each other. Adele aims to disarm; you’re left clutching at the wisps of synths that sometimes close out a ballad.
But the maudlin elements of the album also feel essential: they enable Adele to capture the specific sinusoidal hell of being 21, the emotional velocity that follows a first, serious love. There are refractions of her across the album—Adele Enraged, Adele In Love, Adele Avenging—as she tries to articulate identity through the shape of a lover’s absence. “I’ll be somebody different,” she begs on “I’ll Be Waiting,” “I’ll be better to you.” Much of the album shows Adele calibrating a relationship she’s experiencing with an inherited ideal of what love means. “If this ain’t love, then what is?” she moans on “He Won’t Go,” the question genuine, the prodding laid bare. She wrote “One and Only” as a fictional exercise, trying to imagine the conversation she’d want to have with a lover down the line, and it radiates with hope and expectation. “You’ll never know if you never try/To forget your past and simply be mine,” she belts.
To some critics, 21 was a “bitter” album, a “vengeful” one. What I hear more pressingly is a woman trying to form agency out of the murk of devastation.”I won’t let you close enough to hurt me,” she sings on “Turning Tables.” Adele said that she wrote the haunting “Someone Like You’” “because I was exhausted from being such a bitch” with other songs on the record—but while “Someone Like You” is beautiful and clear and stirring, Adele’s at her most fun when she lashes out. The winkingly vindictive “Rumour Has It” shimmies and shivers under the smoke in her voice. I’d heard “Rolling in the Deep” maybe forty times over the years before it came on shuffle one day and cut me, the sting and curdled rage. “Go ahead and sell me out, and I’ll lay your shit bare,” she murmurs. The ferocity of these songs isn’t dulled or disguised or smuggled in through tidy pop formulas. She continuously wrestles for control and reaches for a vision of herself across time—before she waded into her lover’s life, or decades later when they’re old—and that device is less about her trying on someone’s vantage point and more about her trying to narrow down who she actually is.
On 21, she constantly moves between phases of a relationship, between dimensions of grief. “Only yesterday was the time of our lives,” she breathes in “Someone Like You,” a song about reaching out to an ex years after the end of their relationship and finding that he’s now married and content without her. “I lose myself in time just thinking of your face,” she sighs on “One and Only,” what she called the first happy track she wrote for the record. Her portraits of despair also involve surging between the past and present. “When was the last time you thought of me, or have you completely erased me from memory?” she demands on “Don’t You Remember.” Throughout the song, she struggles to cast herself as someone worthy of recollection, the last remaining way she can become a permanent fixture of her ex’s mind and life. Love is hitched to precarity in Adele’s world, always needing to be stated or defended or mourned.
Part of this, perhaps, stems from the broad narratives in Adele’s songs. The other forces of breakup tracks at the time, Drake and Taylor Swift, filled their songs with details: a red scarf left at an ex’s sister’s house, an apology for having sex four times in one week. Adele’s writing is allusive. She sings in generalities — hearts melting, last goodbyes, pleas to forgive unnamed sins. 21 asks for your participation. You’re meant to summon your mottled heartbreak to fill in some of the blanks, and tap into the sorrow and rage and remorse that quakes through these songs. “21 isn’t even my record,” Adele told Zane Lowe in 2015. “It belongs to people.”
Adele knew 21 would loom over her for the rest of her career. “My thing was, how do I follow up 21?” she said. “But I can’t, because it was so big, so many people took it into their lives. I can never live up to that again.” In the video of the BBC experiment, she watches as person after person tries on the character of Adele. She feigns nervousness—“I’m going to be sick,” she murmurs at one point, maybe a nod to her history of stage fright. But when it’s her turn to sing, it’s only an instant before the row of impersonators realize who she is. Their mouths flop open, cartoonish, and they touch each other’s arms. They join in and sing her words back to her, some starting to cry. Adele beams at them from behind the mic and stares at all these refractions of herself. She keeps watching them, transfixed.
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