ADELE REMINDS ME of the sample pack of instant coffee I received in the mail last week. The coffee packaging presented the idea of sophistication and quality and an association with the art of espresso, and the product had the olfactory whiff of real coffee, but ultimately, it was as disappointing and flat as instant coffee always is. The caffeine hit was the only thing about it that was real.
Perhaps Adele’s appeal is that she brings a touch of class to ordinariness. Like an old bungalow gentrified with a contemporary white-walled sensibility, her blue-eyed soul mannerisms are dressed with the kind of antiseptic, karaoke-style backing you might expect from a TV talent show. And for a generation versed in reality television, she probably seems like the voice of authenticity.
There’s a lot to like about Adele – her unpretentiousness, her down-to-earth sense of humour, her unwillingness to partake in celebrity culture, and her refusal to submit to the usual body image stereotypes. What’s not to like, however, is much about the music. Her third album, 25, is a masterstroke of earworm wriggling: take the first track and lead single ‘Hello’, which I found myself bellowing in the shower after only two cursory exposures. Catchy it might be, but is it any good? This is song-writing as the art of emotional manipulation, and keys into the current trend for big choruses that demand immediate and convenient catharsis.
Thankfully, there are a few welcome stylistic departures from the calculatedly heart-wrenching power ballads, but it’s Adele’s voice that kills it for this listener: while it’s clear that she can wail, she’s no match for even a bog standard American soul diva, and sounds strained on her upper register. It’s when she’s holding back and working with those dusky lower notes that Adele is at her best. GARY STEEL