The biggest-selling album in the UK last year was Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back To Black’ and, in a rare case of sales matching artistic merit, it was well deserved. In the depths of a still-bloody break-up her heart was left to hang in the noose of soulful, emotionally stark songs. With the help of The Dap-Kings and Mark Ronson’s pitch-perfect production she created a raw and earthy modern masterpiece that resonated with everyone from Jay-Z to Girls Aloud.
In the post-‘…Black’ glow, record companies have been busying themselves by bankrolling several Winehouse-style prodigies and, before Duffy chucks her beehive into the ring later this year, it’s the turn of Adele Adkins. And, as you will probably know by now, she’s been hyped to the skies.
She first emerged purring from the shadows of The LDN Songwriter Finishing School. Releasing her debut single on Jamie T’s Pacemaker label and cooing with Jack Peñate (on his ‘My Yvonne’ track), it wasn’t long before she signed to XL. Here, she basked in the reflected credibility of the label’s roster (Dizzee Rascal, MIA, The White Stripes).
Seemingly poised for greatness, it helped that her first two singles felt like the perfect opening chapters from an artist with something big to say. With its killer piano riff, ‘Hometown Glory’ was a sonorous, wide-eyed meditation on her native Tottenham while follow-up ‘Chasing Pavements’ was a booming shout-out from the middle of the yellow brick road to fame. Framed around a metaphor for unrequited love, it was a statement of intent, liberally drenched with Jerry Wexler-like strings and showgirl chutzpah.
Already announced as the recipient of this year’s Critics’ Choice Brit Award, she’s been the subject of hysterical newspaper headlines claiming she is “the new Winehouse”. Yes, she’s the charismatic London lass done good. Yes, she possesses the oak-aged voice that belies her Botticelli face, but… really?
Indeed, as ‘19’ reveals itself, it’s clear that the Amy associations are little more than empty mediaspeak without any real weight. Despite the early indicators, there’s precious little on the album that prevents it from collapsing under the weight of its own expectation.
For all the talk of Adele’s eclectic range of influences (from the ballsy nu-soul of Jill Scott to the sublime politico rants of Billy Bragg) ‘19’ plays it dead safe. Instead of re-writing the script she takes her cue from the formulaic, Jamie Cullum-led set.
Lyrically there’s only the tiniest whiff of her witty, take-no-prisoners interview persona. Unlike Winehouse, who from the off had the writing skills of an attitude-driven rapper, Adele’s heart-as-smoking-gun lyrics feel underwritten.
The likes of ‘My Same’ (an opposites-attract tale underlined by Adele’s uncomfortable scat) and ‘Right As Rain’ (a textbook done-me-wrong
Motown pastiche) grate with X Factor irritation – they’re musical clichés looking for an identity.
The nadir comes with ‘Make You Feel My Love’, which has something of the getting-up-from-your-stool balladry about it. It’s less ‘Dusty In Memphis’ and more ‘Melua In Morden’.
Time and time again, her voice (which bounds between Alison Moyet, Rickie Lee Jones and Antony Hegarty) is the sole saving grace. Her pipes are by far the roughest, most charming thing here; tunefully bruised and resonating with a smoky, Golden Virginia hue about them.
Ironically it’s the Mark Ronson collaboration ‘Cold Shoulder’ that is the album’s highlight. With its flickering, panoramic production and – at last – an imbued sense of drama (lyrics such as “you shower me with words made of knives”), it’s a great vehicle for her totemic timbre and shows what the rest of the album could have been.
It’s clear that, for all the hype, Adele is not yet ready to produce an album of sufficient depth to match her voice. Popular wisdom holds that Winehouse didn’t hit her stride until after her debut: perhaps that’s the case with Adele.