Grounded in proper research, the book examines the singer's three studio albums, 19, 21 and 25 in chronological order augmented with essay introductions to each record
New book on Adele explores the words and emotions behind the global success
In 2007, The Guardian’s Caroline Sullivan was the first journalist to interview Adele Adkins for a daily UK broadsheet. She was struck by the emerging star’s self-awareness, unpretentiousness and affability. Even onstage in 2010, at a packed Royal Albert Hall, the singer gave “every impression of being someone you could talk to in the supermarket checkout queue,” Sullivan writes in Adele: The Other Side (Stories Behind the Songs).
Adele was born in Tottenham, North London, and raised in West Norwood, South London. Meeting her for the first time, Sullivan noticed she “had an uncommon set of values compared to her pop peers”. In an era when reality TV shows such as The X Factor paraded pop-star wannabees for whom fame itself seemed paramount, Adele told Sullivan she could take or leave that chalice, poisoned or otherwise. “If I don’t like it, I’ll walk away,” she said. “You don’t have to lose your privacy.”
Fast-forward to April 2018, and Adele, now 29, looks as good as her word. After 100 million album sales, 15 Grammy Awards, an MBE and the honour of singing a James Bond theme – she wrote Skyfall with producer Paul Epworth for the 2012 film of the same name – the singer has retired from the spotlight to raise her 5-year-old son Angelo, with her husband Simon Konecki.
Rumours abound that she is taking a 10-year break from touring, leaving millions of fans hopeful that this “my work here is done” stance will not extend to her recording career.
With more than 20 books about the singer already published, Sullivan’s strategy is to explore the songs from Adele’s three studio albums, 19, 21 and 25 in chronological order, mapping them on to a loose biographical framework which she augments with essay introductions to each record.
Grounded in proper research and lavishly complemented by many photographs, it’s an approach that works well. But entries on the songs in 2015’s 25, a record that sold 19 million copies in six months, are more threadbare. Adele undertook fewer interviews at this time and revealed less and less as she guarded her privacy more zealously post-global fame.
Where 19 is concerned, Sullivan is especially good on Chasing Pavements, a breakthrough 2008 hit that gained early support from Kanye West, who deemed its accompanying video “dope”.
Written by Adele about an Oxford Street, London altercation with a cheating boyfriend in the small hours, the song’s unusual title phrase soon spawned its own Urban Dictionary definition: “A fruitless activity. Trying to achieve something that is destined to failure, usually as a result of blind hope.”
As Sullivan documents, Adele’s stupendous success as a songwriter owes precious little to the usual bangs, whistles and thundering algorithms of modern pop. Rather it is built on personal heartbreak, spare arrangements and a formidable contralto voice that perfectly conveys the kind of stoical hurt that gives songs like 21’s Someone Like You and 25’s Hello such universal appeal.
Naturally, we cheer upon reading that the still-unnamed guy who broke Adele’s heart prior to her making 19 was sent away with a flea in his ear when, in 2011, he had the gall to re-contact the singer, chasing royalties for his “input”.
Precisely why your typical Adele power ballad leaves many listeners hopelessly lachrymose is more complex, however, which is why Sullivan flags-up Anatomy of a Tearjerker, a 2012 piece about Someone Like You that appeared in the Wall Street Journal.
Written by Michaeleen Doucleff, the article suggested that it was to do with the appoggiatura, a type of ornamental note that has the power to induce tears when its tension is resolved.
One can imagine Adele laughing this notion off, much as she laughed off po-faced criticism of her cover of Bob Dylan’s Make You Feel My Love. She estimated she made Dylan about £1 million (Dh5.13m) in royalties, adding “maybe he’ll buy me a watch or something”.
It’s this ability to deflate pontification, and to remain, despite her millions, “the kind of good egg that the public just happens to like”, Sullivan notes, that helps ensure Adele’s enduring popularity. It helps, too, that in 2017 she visited the site of the Grenfell Tower disaster in North Kensington and performed her love letter to her native London, Hometown Glory, to a video backdrop of the charred building at Wembley Stadium on June 28, two weeks after the disaster.
As echoed by River Lea, a song from 25 name-checking the waterway beside Adele’s old Tottenham stamping-ground, the singer has never forgotten her humble roots, and the sterling work of her single-parent mother Penny Adkins. Her father Mark Evans left the family when she was 3.
Still, as Sullivan parses Adele’s songs for meaning and resonance, some of the nicest details here concern those happily caught up in the singer’s phenomenal success.
Musician Neil Cowley initially baulked at his manager promoting him as “the most listened-to pianist in the world” until he realised his work on Adele’s output meant it was probably true, while director Mat Kirkby quickly learnt the folly of his mobile phone number being visible in the promo video for Make You Feel My Love.
Kirkby estimates that he subsequently received up to 5,000 calls and voicemails, some of which were abusive, and some of which transpired to be fans singing the song at him.
Adele: The Other Side (The Stories Behind The Songs) will be published on May 3 by Carlton Books