In retrospect — a word I use loosely here, since 21 was released less than two and a half years ago — 21‘s astonishing success in a supposedly post-music-buying era makes a lot of sense, for I can think of three blockbuster albums in particular that struck three different chords in three separate eras that share a hell of a lot in common with Adele’s Grammy-sweeper. The first is Carole King’s Tapestry (1971), which is one of my favorites. Sonically, Tapestry and 21 both utilize an entirely organic approach, with lots of piano, acoustic guitar, and a female vocalist with the power to shake the recording studio. (Okay, Carole’s voice is a little more tender.) Tapestry was a huge album in the early ’70s, selling ten million copies (like 21) and sweeping the Album, Song and Record of the Year categories at the Grammys (like 21). That being said, Tapestry has a more celebratory, yearning feel than 21, which takes a more confessional approach.
The second record is Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours — crucially, the mother of all breakup albums — released during the thick of the album era of the mid to late ’70s in 1977. Like Tapestry, Rumours is one of my favorite albums — it’s just unbeatable pop, and the fly-on-the-wall view into the band’s two couples’ messy breakups (while still somehow remaining a functioning unit) never fails to fascinate. It’s clear that thematically, 21 has quite a bit in common with Rumours, and it’s not hard to understand why the breakup theme resonated with the masses: most pop songs are about love, and what’s a juicier love subject than breakup? 21 may not be as fascinating in its topicality since Adele’s former beau is not present to defend himself like in the case of Rumours, but getting a one-sided glimpse into the wreckage of a relationship is still interesting in its own right.
Actually, there’s a specific album I have in mind that mined this “broken relationship” vein less than two decades ago to great effect, at least commercially: Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, which sold north of 30 million copies worldwide and won Album of the Year despite being wildly overrated. Heresy, I know, but Alanis has a gratingly bad voice — not to mention she annoyingly says “figgers” instead of “figures” on “Ironic” — and the songs are pretty hit or miss. Whereas 21 is confessional, Jagged Little Pill is confrontational — even openly hostile — which is undone by its glossy mid-’90s production full of guitars drenched in flanger and beats that have a little too much groove to feel genuine. Still, Jagged Little Pill connected with some 16 million American listeners and spawned half a dozen hit singles because it had a relatable narrative. Basically, Morissette’s relationship with a record label exec ended in exploitation, and she revenge-recorded Jagged Little Pill to make the world right — and everyone ate it up.
It fit right in on the alternative rock airwaves, and I will say this on behalf of the very good single “You Oughta Know”: it’s better than anything Dave Navarro ever contributed to the Chili Peppers during his brief mid-’90s tenure. (Navarro and Flea played guitar and bass, respectively, on the song. If you listen to the bridge of “You Oughta Know,” you’ll hear a nearly identical intro to the Red Hot Chili Peppers song “Aeroplane.”) What Morissette gets right on Jagged Little Pill is striking the right dramatic beats, such as on the final two tracks, “Not the Doctor” and “Wake Up,” adding considerable listenability to already pretty good songs. This was the real secret to the album’s colossal commercial success, and while 21 offers nothing as dramatic as “Wake Up,” as raging as “You Oughta Know,” or as rocking as “All I Really Want,” it more than makes up for it with restraint and, above all, class.
The Jagged Little Pill phenomenon was about a young woman letting loose; the 21 mania was about Adele’s ability to hold back. Even more explosive songs like “Rolling in the Deep” and “Set Fire to the Rain” are anchored in the exploration of traditional songcraft and the embracing of organic, unprocessed production techniques. Plus, only the choruses contain the truly eruptive moments; they aren’t wall-to-wall hate-rants in the style of “You Oughta Know.” So even if, on the surface, 21 has more in common with Jagged Little Pill than Rumours or Tapestry in terms of theme and topicality, as a listen, 21 is much more like, to put it a little simple-mindedly, “Tapestry with the lyrics of Rumours.” And let’s be honest: if you were to pitch 21 like a movie, that’s exactly how you would phrase it.
So is 21‘s once-unthinkable success all that hard to understand now, given all this extra context? Yes and no. I believe there are three steps to creating a great work:
- You must develop a mastery of the form — whatever it is — to the extent that you begin to notice what isn’t there (i.e., what hasn’t already been done).
- You must develop a premise, a concept, an idea — whatever you want to call it, depending on the form — based on one of the “holes” discovered during step one.
- You must execute the premise, concept, idea — whatever it is — in a way that is both highly specific and unique and highly universal and mythic at the same time.
Obviously, step three is the hardest part. When I first heard 21, I thought it was good but I wasn’t exactly blown away by it. I actually thought it was pretty uneven; I can remember thinking it was a bit too pop-oriented, in the sense that it seemed like every song was trying to be a potential hit single. I guess I’m glad initial impressions aren’t everything. It has actually been interesting to keep track of my feelings towards 21, since for a so-called “pop album” it actually has taken many, many listens for me to really map out every inch of the album’s vast topography, which, as I just mentioned, seems somewhat flat in its approach at first but is actually quite delicate and three-dimensional. It’s pretty rare for a contemporary release to have that “deepening” effect these days. You see, even if, as a hypothetical, Adele had set out to make an album that was, superficially, “Tapestry with the lyrics of Rumours,” it still could have bombed if it weren’t any good or if the public hadn’t responded to it (or both). It’s the execution that’s key.
This happens all the time in the movie and television business in particular. A good movie like, say, Gladiator does well and suddenly we get bombarded with tripe like Troy and 300. Successful art can’t simply be produced at will, even though it sometimes turns out that way. The success of 21 does make sense, certainly, but I’m still not sure if the sheer size of it does. It’s possible no future album will ever top it, since even in the past year or two streaming services have seen rapid growth and it may become standard for most consumers to simply not buy any music at all. (I suppose it’s worth noting that Adele was a Spotify holdout until recently.) The fact remains, though, that 21 did do phenomenally well, and is now considered a modern classic.
I check the Billboard charts every so often, and I do recall coming across the song “Rolling in the Deep” repeatedly, but I just figured that since everyone else on the Hot 100 chart basically sucks, that this Adele person must suck, too. It wasn’t until Lady Gaga released her second album Born This Way that I began to notice that the status quo was changing. Considering that Lady Gaga was pretty much the most popular artist in the world at that point, I expected her new album and its singles to dominate, because, well, why wouldn’t they? But, strangely, Gaga didn’t dominate. The album faded quite quickly, and Adele kept gathering steam. Then, one day I was watching the sports talk show Pardon the Interruption (one of my favorite shows) and I heard Tony Kornheiser mention Adele and say, “She’s good, isn’t she?” to co-host Michael Wilbon, who agreed. I thought, “Whoa. What?” I had figured she was just the latest talentless pop fad.
Obviously, she’s not. She’s the biggest star in the world right now, the music industry’s reigning MVP. The sequel to 21 is still probably a long ways off, but at least she has been doing cool stuff in the interim like the James Bond theme song “Skyfall,” for which she recently won an Oscar. She also had a baby and got married, so 21‘s sequel will almost certainly be much different than its predecessor, which can only be a good thing. In a way, it’s a good thing 21 is so singular in its topicality — it gives Adele the freedom and ability to move past the relationship that defined the album. Judging by the recent events in her personal life, she already has.