With Adele laying waste to all before her in terms of crowd numbers, merch sales, profit and even reviews. Wind Back Wednesday goes back to what was said about all three albums. Where prognostications and pop collide.
19 (XL) 2008
Be prepared over coming months to hear a lot of "she's this year's Amy Winehouse": their ranks are legion.
On your radar are the likes of Duffy, Adele and Australian teenager Gabriella Cilmi who will in various ways be seen as the new young soul singer you need to have, without (hopefully) the self-destructive tendencies of the beehived and tattooed one.
Brixton's Adele, who sees no need for the surname Adkins, has already been voted, ahead of the British music industry's big night itself, (not to mention ahead of the release of her debut album) the Brit Awards critic's choice prize.
She's also had the "great voice of her generation/the future of pop" raindrops falling on her head from overexcited media and PR types.
Ridiculous of course. There's little to be gained from that palaver. Not for 19-year-old Adele, who doesn't need the air in her tyres pumped before she even gets to start her engine, nor for us who should come to this album prepared to be surprised not expecting to be blown away.
But Adele does have the twin benefits of being the first of the batch we hear and someone clearly bearing talent. Not just a voice with promise but a sense of individual style percolating beneath the acquired mannerisms.
With strings, swing and occasionally funky bass, the album could be said to sit somewhere between the jazz-shaped soul on Winehouse's debut album Frank (the finger-snapping My Same could be a Frank offcut) and the more pronounced Motown/Gold Star studio shapes of her massive Back To Black (Right As Rain does groove) with just enough of the Winehouse attitude to make her sound feisty and modern.
However, 19 is at its best principally when Adele sings backed only by guitar (the opening tracks Daydreamer and Best For Last), vibraphone (First Love) or piano (her affecting version of Dylan's much covered Make You Feel My Love). Simplicity suits her.
Indeed, the piano ballad which closes the album, Hometown Glory, is the first of what may well be many signature songs for Adele. It's a love letter to her city of London, but done with a sense of sorrow and knowledge beneath the celebration.
And what is being celebrated isn't bobbies on bicycles two by two, or men in cor blimey trousers, but the air "thick and opaque", streets filled with anti-government protestors which "shows that we ain't going to stand shit, shows that we are united" and the grit not yet wiped away by CCTV.
Adele looks like one to watch.
21 (XL) 2011
When you come in the wake of a phenomenon such as Amy Winehouse you have to wear some pointed scepticism. Adele Adkins, like Winehouse a young, white British soul singer with a proper voice not just a key to the Autotune box, was questioned over whether she was an artist who needed to create or a performer crafted to meet a need.
There were fewer of those questions in the USA where her album, 19, charted incredibly well and picked up a couple of Grammys. Likewise in Australia, though I had Adele pegged as likely to make the better sounding but not necessarily most distinctive albums out of the post-Winehouse wave.
She had the strongest and clearest voice of the lot but that certainty of sound slightly undermined it for me as its control threatened to militate against its individuality. Meanwhile Duffy had more character quirks in her voice and Alice Russell (the best of them actually) had a looseness which accommodated the grit and the gospel in equal measure.
Having been disappointed by Duffy’s second album, which tried to rebuild a perfectly good chassis by leaning towards generic modernity, I have been surprised by Adele's 21, which is equally modern facing but more inclined to extend the debut's ideas and reveal some character depth.
First of all though, let's be clear that this isn’t by any definition a soul record. This is a ballad-heavy album of pop music well aware of its contemporary setting (those vocals are so prominent it’s startling), just not wedded to it; pop music which draws from soul certainly but for and by a child of the ‘90s who had Whitney and Annie Lennox albums on the shelf as well as Mum’s Aretha Franklin.
The busting Rumour Has It and the first single, Rolling In The Deep, have thin but tough carapaces, like mid period Eurythmics or maybe a ballsier Paul Young, and their position at the beginning of the album is a hardly subtle signal that this isn't a ‘60s exercise.
They’re followed by big throated ballads such as Turning Tables, Set Fire To The Rain and Don’t You Remember and later the more danceable He Won’t Go and I’ll Be Waiting, all of which could have done serious business on the old 2DAY FM.
It isn’t until well into the album, with the pure churchifying of Take It All, that there’s overt soul, though this pudding is nearly over-egged with a gospel choir arriving at full throttle halfway through.
Nonetheless, it tips its hat to Aretha, not just in the choir but in the way Adele manages open emotion without tumbling into over singing.
That’s when you realise, given 21 is almost wholly given over to post-breakup musings, how easily this album could have gone wrong and how Adele is a genuine singer, albeit a pop-with-splashes-of-soul singer.
25 (XL) 2015
My, this is a big album. And I’m not talking about its guaranteed debut at number one around the world next week, nor that it likely will be the highest selling album of the year despite being released with only a few weeks left.
Adele’s voice has never sounded more certain, more prominent, more dominating, which is saying something given how it took all of centre stage for its predecessor.
Even the quietest songs, Million Years Ago and All I Ask, seem to expand to fill the space like a decent size living room now occupied by the All Blacks pack having tea, the listener more like the dainty, dwarfed cups hoping not to be crushed.
Indeed, when she takes flight near the end of All I Ask, Adele makes the booming peak of this album’s first single, the already massively successful Hello, seem almost demure. This is a voice which makes its own way.
And around it everything else is stronger, higher, louder and more - of everything. It’s even more ballad-heavy than her debut 19 and its follow-up, 21; it’s got drums that would make boommeister Phil Collins reconsider his imminent return to the recording studio; backing vocals come in various stages of choir, from mid-size gospel church to Mormon Tabernacle; and its choruses scale up from mid-size city CBD to Manhattan skyline.
If it wasn’t already clear, while initially tagged as some kind of soul revivalist, the 1960s never really suited Adele, for the 1980s was her breeding ground.
She loves it for its high sheen and willingness to push that little bit further – in sound, hair and choruses that would roll over all opposition - that defines 25; for spawning the voices of the ‘90s in Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey et al that filled her childhood radio and appear here in reach-for-the-sky tracks like When We Were Young; and because it took the elements of the ‘60s and remade them in the image of the age.
Take one of the lesser tracks here, Water Under The Bridge. It opens like Paul Young with the requisite high-haired black backing vocalist doing a soul siren thing in the background, with a rhythm made for a filmclip director’s slow camera pan over a car in a semi-desert landscapes, and, after indulging crashing electronic drum exclamation marks, ends with a splash of a cappella.
It’s enough to make MTV think about putting music on its main channel again.
Even the variations, such as her collaboration with Swedish pop masters Max Martin and Shellback, Send My Love (To Your New Lover) which contains rather than unleashes their usual skittish rhythms, and pushes forward a vocal hook that has faint echoes of Britney Spears, sounds uncannily like Young’s version of Love Of The Common People.
Not that Young, Britney or even Whitney, would take such a determined downbeat lyrically.
While now aged 27, settled in a relationship, with a child and presumably happy-as, that don’t make for an Adele album: if you want happy buy yourself a Katy Perry album, we come here for drama.
Not for nothing, and not entirely jokingly, did she say around the time of her second album, 21, that she’d almost deliberately sought out a problematic relationship to spur the songwriting.
So 25 is suffused, yet again, with looking back: at where she was a few years ago; at mistakes made; at relationships which foundered; things not said, things said that shouldn’t have been, things being said now to a void.
There are plenty of lines such as “I feel like my life is flashing back and all I can do is watch and cry” and “what if I never loved again?” and happiness is kept at a distance.
It matters little if some of us might have wanted some expansion in style rather than volume, with better lines than “you look like a movie, you sound like a song”, and more emotional ground covered than sad/wistful/yearning, because I’d be amazed if this isn’t exactly what Adele fans have waited three years to get.
These songs are simple but not spare, so you can sing them well enough while imagining just how good you might sound in the world's most perfect karaoke night.
They are emotive without being overwhelmed by its emotion, so you get the heart kick but not the whole downer.
They make weak lines like “you look like a movie, you sound like a song” sound momentarily profound.
In other words, 25 is everything one might ask of mainstream adult pop, except maybe surprising and exciting.