In the lead-up to the release of 25, the new album from Adele, the news cycle was flooded with various “industry people” in a tizzy, falling over themselves to count Adele’s money with useless predictions of how many copies of her record she’d sell and what records she’d break.
Part of this is because she’s a commercial force, selling recordings at a clip entirely out of proportion to the rest of the industry — even outliers like Taylor Swift. Part of this is because since her tour for 21, she’s remained mostly out of the public eye. But very little of it appears to have anything to do with the actual music.
When we think of a pop star with her stature and sales power, it’s worth asking: Just what exactly do people love about Adele? Why do they run out and immediately buy whatever she makes? It’s not just because being sad is trending; 21 was heartbreaking, but 25 is more triumphant. And yes, it’s obviously first and foremost about the voice, which is stunning, and powerful, and singular. But it’s also her relatively unheralded skill as a pop songwriter that draws people to her.
Yes, she works with co-writers, but she’s not showing up at the end to change a lyric and take a share of the publishing. Often songs are built around riffs she writes on guitar (“Hometown,” “Someone Like You”), and she writes lyrics about the human experience that are ready-made for self-identification. These are simple concepts of doubt, longing, love, healing, and regret, but through her voice, it becomes transcendent. It’s so strong, so massive that it has gravitational pull. It’s not hard to make the song she wrote about her life be about yours.
Since 21, Adele has had surgery on her vocal cords after a hemorrhage that forced her to cancel tour dates, and in the aftermath, added four notes to the top of her range. She scrapped rushed recording sessions after some real talk from her manager and the producer Rick Rubin, who said he didn’t “believe” her. The finished product, which is very believably Adele, was put together by collaborators old (Paul Epworth, Ryan Tedder) and new (Bruno Mars, Tobias Jesso Jr, Max Martin).
“Send My Love (To Your New Lover),” her collaboration with Max Martin and his protege Shellback, is bouncier than anything she’s ever done, and lyrically, is almost Swift-ian with its “I’m fucking fine so fuck you” sentiment — unsurpring, perhaps, since it was “I Knew You Were Trouble” that led Adele down the path to seek out Martin. She channels Elton John on her favorite track on the new record, the Tobias Jesso Jr collabo “When We Were Young.” Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) sampled her voice to create eerie choral organ chords on “River Lea,” an ode to her youth. She scrapped initial plans to make a modern pop song with electronic sounds for her collaboration with The Smeezingtons, but ended up stripping everything down to sing the hell out of “All I Ask,” hitting notes higher than we’ve ever heard her sing. And on the Paul Epworth track “Sweetest Devotion,” the clean tones of the electric guitar almost sound out of place — in a way that’s refreshing rather than disconcerting.
But let’s get real. At the end of the day, it’s not just some new production technique, or the fact that she looks like an everywoman, or that she writes excellent pop songs, or that she’s relatable in a way that most pop stars are not that have rocketed her to superstardom. It’s the voice. Without it, none of the rest matters. You can’t escape it.
The BBC recently played a cute prank on a handful of Adele impersonators, where she wore prosthetics on her face to hide amongst them as a fellow impersonator. She plays along at the fake audition, acts nervous, and even talks shit about how long “she’s” taking with the new record. But once it’s her turn to sing, the jig is up within seconds, as the first woman notices it was her almost immediately: “As soon as she opened her mouth, you could just tell,” she said. “You can’t mimic like that.” And it’s true. Maybe the reason people are so entranced by Adele really is that simple. Her voice is just that incredible. As James Corden, the host of the 2011 Brit Awards, said of her performance at the ceremony:
“You can have all the dancers, pyrotechnics, laser shows you want, but if you sound like that, all you need is a piano. Incredible.”