I deal with things differently now. I’m more patient, more honest, more forgiving and more aware of my own flaws, habits and principles. Something that comes with age I think. So fittingly this record is called 21. Everyday something happens that affects me, whether it be relationships, events, something I hear, something I see or something I feel. All of which is helping define me and turning me in to who I’m becoming. The whole reason I called my first album 19 was about cataloging what happened to me then and who I was then; like a photo album you see the progression and changes in a person throughout the years. I tried to think of other album titles but couldn’t come up with anything that represented the album properly, I kept swerving 21 thinking it was obvious. But why not be obvious?
— Adele, on 21 before its release
Before the release of 19, “Daydreamer” Adele Adkins was a relatively unknown name in the music world. After its release in 2008, she quickly found fame and acclaim from music critics across the globe, even garnering comparisons to the late Amy Winehouse, as well as other leading female soul singers. Those comparisons led her to tell The Guardian‘s Hannah Pool: “We got lumped in together, but I don’t think we sound alike at all. We were trying to achieve the same things but we’re a gender, not a genre.”
To say that Adele redefined the soul genre is an understatement; she helped shape its most modern iteration, especially with her knack for broken-hearted storytelling.
During the early sessions of writing and recording 21, Adele was dealing with the tumultuous ups and downs of the relationship she was in at the time (which ultimately ended). Sonically, 21 has many of the same Motown and folk influences from 19, but takes it a step further, branching out into the world of Southern blues and American country; both genres are ones she had experienced during her debut world tour, An Evening With Adele, a tour that focused less on England and the United Kingdom, but moreso on North America.
Thematically 21 explores the three main stages of the grieving process — depression, anger, and acceptance — while also diving into the loneliness and heartbreak that comes alongside the grieving process. Experiencing heartbreak as a teenager is vastly different than experiencing heartbreak in your 20s. The process behind pouring your heart and soul into your music, using it as a crutch to heal and grow from is the same, though, no matter what age you’re at. Sure, “Chasing Pavements,” the song Adele wrote for 19 after learning her boyfriend had cheated on her, is deeply emotional, but it’s nothing compared to what she experienced in the 21 sessions. “Take It All” was written for a man she was seeing for about 18 months when she started recording 21. She played the song for him, ended up in an argument with him, and they broke up. After that split, she took the bitter emotions she had and channeled those into her songs, most notably “Rolling In The Deep,” the album’s first single, written in the wake of that split. On 21, the amount of hurt she has can be heard in many of the songs, including “Turning Tables,” a ballad inspired by another argument she had with her ex.
Alongside songs about heartbreak and loss is writing that has Adele lamenting on the memories of her relationship. Nestled in between “Turning Tables” and “Set Fire To The Rain” is “Don’t You Remember,” which seems to act as a companion to “Take It All.” It also acts as yet another part of the grieving process: bargaining. Adele admits her flaws — “I know I have a fickle heart and bitterness, and a wandering eye, and a heaviness in my head” — but wants her former lover to remember the good about the relationship: “baby please remember me once more.”
But grieving here isn’t exactly a linear process. Just when you think she’s about to move onto the next stage, she instead bounces between them rapidly. “I’ll Be Waiting” is another song that takes a look at the bargaining stage, with an oddly upbeat style; an interesting choice to follow “Take It All.” It’s an optimistic love song, where she cries out, “I’ll be waiting for you when you’re ready to love me again/I’ll put my hands up!/I’ll do everything different, I’ll be better to you.”
Adele took her emotions from the split and channeled those feelings into both the lyrics of 21‘s songs, as well as her own voice. The amount of raw, real emotion seeping through the airwaves is unlike any album by her peers in contemporary pop today. It’s as if you can hear the anger rolling through in “Turning Tables,” with lyrics like, “I can’t keep up with your turning tables, under your thumb I can’t breathe,” leading into the powerful chorus. You can hear the sadness in her voice as she sings “Take It All,” while the range of her vocals across the entire album are more powerful than the instruments that accompany it.
Interestingly enough, Adele’s cover of the Bob Dylan classic, “Make You Feel My Love,” would have fit in perfectly on 21, perhaps instead of her version of The Cure’s classic, “Love Song.” The emotional punch her voice packs against the piano makes it one of the most memorable cover songs in modern music history. If it had been on 21, alongside “Someone Like You” and “Take It All,” you’re looking at a pretty special vocal trifecta.
Speaking of “Someone Like You,” it’s perhaps one of the best closing songs featured on an album in quite some time. It’s an extremely personal one that Adele wrote in the wake of finding out that her ex was engaged. It’s an incredibly simple arrangement, which leaves a lasting impression on the listener. In 2011, Adele sat down with MTV’s James Montgomery to discuss the album. When asked about the album’s closer, she said, “Well, I wrote that song because I was exhausted from being such a bitch, with ‘Rolling in the Deep’ or ‘Rumor Has It,'” she said, laughing. “I was really emotionally drained from the way I was portraying him, because even though I’m very bitter and regret some parts of it, he’s still the most important person that’s ever been in my life, and ‘Someone Like You,’ I had to write it to feel OK with myself and OK with the two years I spent with him. And when I did it, I felt so freed.”
21 went on to become a record-shattering album, both in the United Kingdom and in the United States, as well as across the globe. It holds three Guinness World Records, and it was the first record released in the 2010s to achieve the RIAA’s Diamond certification. It was also the top-selling album for both 2011 and 2012 in the United States and Canada — the first album to be a best seller for two years in a row in North America since Michael Jackson’s Thriller, originally released in the ’80s. With 21, Adele was also the first artist to achieve Billboard’s Artist of the Year award for two consecutive years. Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A. and the soundtrack for The Sound of Music both spent over 80 weeks in the Billboard 200’s Top 10. 21 joins them, making a very unusual trio.
Since the release of 21, Adele has gone on to release a song (“Skyfall”) for the James Bond film franchise, her third studio album (25), upped her total number of Grammys won to 15, had a son, got married, and broke even more records. 19, 21, and 25 form a unique trio of albums, documenting her life in song. Out of the three, 21 had some of the biggest influence on the industry and the world.
What will Adele do next? The world will always be pleasantly surprised with each move she takes as the years go on.