19, by Adele
With this album, Adele’s career begins at a young age, and though this album certainly was bigger in the United Kingdom than it was in the United States, it still made some impression on the American charts (particularly with “Chasing Pavements,” the album’s third song). We all know by this point how Adele ended up, as the adult contemporary artist who wrote songs about hopeless and dysfunctional romantic relationships. But how did she begin? Was her music any different as she was getting started in the music business during her late teens as it was when she made her breakthrough with 21 and consolidated the massive success with 25? Let’s find out.
The album begins with “Daydreamer,” a slow-paced acoustic storytelling song about an unfortunate man who happens to be rather bad at intimacy, alas. “Best For Last” starts slow but ends up being a jazzy and interesting tell-off to someone who tries to use lines of love and devotion on the cynical Adele that includes some aspect of self-criticism. “Chasing Pavements” shows Adele reflecting on the grind and seeming lack of progress that she was already (!) frustrated with in her life, a tendency that would become all the more notable in her body of work. “Cold Shoulder” shows Adele struggling with someone whose words and actions regarding love and romance do not correspond, a problem she seems to recognize easier in others than in herself. “Crazy For You” is a slow and austere acoustic guitar ballad about Adele’s infatuation with someone who is likely not feeling equally infatuated with her. “Melt My Heart To Stone” is a mid-tempo but rather spare song that expresses how things are going in a dysfunctional romantic relationship. “First Love” is a music box-sounding song about an unsuccessful first love that Adele turns down for what appear to be rather shallow and unsatisfactory reasons. “Right As Rain” is a bit more upbeat than the average song that reflects on the loneliness and isolation that came to Adele despite her success, which she is already somewhat dissatisfied with even at this early stage of her career. “To Make You Feel My Love” is I think the fifth version of this song I ever heard, but it probably my second favorite version (after Garth Brooks’, slightly ahead of Billy Joel’s), a lovely and rather straightforward piano ballad. “My Same” is a somewhat upbeat discussion of an opposites attract sort of relationship that works for Adele (at least until it doesn’t?) that details all the differences that Adele notices in her partner. “I’m Tired” is a rather tired song (with interesting production, it must be admitted) that discusses a love triangle that makes Adele tired. “Hometown Glory” then finishes with an interesting reflection on Adele’s fondness for London relative to her hometown.
It is somewhat strange to think about it this way, but the album that most closely resembles 19 in Adele’s body of work is 30. While 19 shows Adele being rather spare with most of her instrumentation and production here (there are both acoustic guitar and piano tracks, and even the more upbeat ones are rather simple for the most part on instrumentation), 30 shows Adele pulling back from the bigger sound on her previous two albums and adopting for a similarly spare approach long on slow love ballads about love gone wrong. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Adele is the lack of progress that she has shown in more than a decade of performing. In all of her studio albums one finds a similar blend of frustrated longings, bitter recriminations of exes, and attempts to examine herself that seem to go nowhere to actually changing her behavior. At no point does one ever feel throughout four studio albums over about a dozen years or so that Adele has finally gotten it, that she will find the right kind of man and have a happy and successful marriage and family life, and grow up and take responsibility for her own life without trying to blame or excuse it away. And though Adele’s music is certainly beautiful and the sentiments of her song certainly relatable, this is a frustrating career to examine, it must be admitted.