This originally appeared in Word Magazine, January 2011
Now’s The Time
It’s pop’s true perennial, one that’ll be here long after the guitar-bass-drum legions have gone the way of the washboard. The double-barrelled shotgun of big-song/big-voice predates rock and keeps getting in the way of its conquest: halting the Beatles’ run of consecutive chart-toppers when Release Me hemmed in one of their best singles, Strawberry Fields Forever, at number two; pilloried as the pinnacle of bad taste on Abigail’s Party; even raising the damned Titanic in the ‘90s.
Adele Adkins wasn’t supposed to go that way. Hyped as XL’s “new Amy” to Rough Trade’s competing Duffy – a rare case of indie labels scampering down a path laid by a major, Island – her first album, 19, was a too-light-by-half exercise in gentle soul, folk and jazz. Its saving grace – and the driving force behind an impressive two million worldwide sales, significantly boosted when she fluked her way onto the same record-breaking Saturday Night Live bill as Sarah Palin – was the beast of a ballad Chasing Pavements. Drenched in strings and with a hook that allowed Adele to unleash her vocal cannonade at full blast, it achieved that delicate balancing act of subtlety and force-of-nature emotional torrents that stop the right side of histrionics.
Having perhaps sensed that for Adele more is always more, her second album strips away the soft padding that marred her debut. While 19 placed her in some metaphorical supper club, 21 – like her debut, named for her age – puts her centrestage in Vegas, with songs that typically start at 11 and work their way up. Not that these are overly ornate – Rick Rubin, who produces four tracks, didn’t get where he is today by burying the voice in superfluous instrumentation – just dramatic, every gun set to stun. With Adele slaloming her way through the notes, you feel on the cusp of being overwhelmed, even when, as on the Rubin-produced Cure cover Lovesong, she’s backed by nothing more than acoustic guitar and the gentlest of strings.
Adele is a graduate of the same BRIT school that brought us Amy Winehouse and Kate Nash, but has always seemed like the oldest child in the playground, and not just in her generous physical frame (all the better for booming them out with). A former indie kid who kept her fondness for Celine Dion hidden from friends, even her Twitter account has lain untouched in 18 months. No winsome mundanity here about teeth-brushing or trips to Tesco’s – all 11 songs on 21 are powerplays, postcards from the edge of some relationship crisis or other. It’s not without drawbacks – you’re never more than ten minutes from an X-Factor-style emotithon, the worst of which, Set Fire To The Rain, sounds like it was made with the aid of a wind tunnel and a Bonnie Tyler fright wig.
But there’s more than enough to demonstrate that Adele, far from being just another cookie off the stage-school cutter, could still be selling out the enormodomes when the rest of the class are banding together for the BRIT School Reunion package tour. Her delivery, first breathy then blowy, on the retro soul gem I’ll Be Waiting sounds like a gauntlet flung in the direction of Ms Winehouse, whose forthcoming (yeah right!) LP will have to defy visible physical and creative decline to produce anything to compare with it or the stupendous, stark R&B of Rumour Has It. As if to prove she can occasionally do understated, Someone Like You, on which she’s accompanied only by a piano, sounds like Alicia Keys’s immaculate No One remixed without the eruptions.
She will, it’s hoped, be served better by time than Tony Christie. Like Adele, Christie is a singer whose voice is built for the big occasion, one that would’ve been an easy listening mainstay, had he found more memorable material. Instead he spent most of his career in the shadow of Tom Jones, eking out a living in German clubs while the Welshman strutted the stage in Vegas. Revived with a nod and a wink by those twin towers of northern humour, Peter Kay and Jarvis Cocker (who pens Get Christie, an awful homage to Get Carter that borrows the film’s theme tune and most famous line), he’s released two albums of covers post-Amarillo. Now’s The Time is original material, recorded with the aid of other Sheffield stalwarts such as Roisin Murphy, who appears on the most successful track, the bold, confident 7 Hills, and producer Richard Barrett of All Seeing I. It’s a stab at recreating his early ’70s heyday, but sounds instead like a bid for an Austin Powers soundtrack or Glastonbury’s veteran’s slot, a self-conscious stew of showy big band tunes, heavy on brass but light on funk, swing or drive. In this battle of the big voices, the veteran’s locked in a pastiche of the past; the newcomer is busily re-proving that old adage about quality being timeless.