Please note: this piece was also published in On Being.
When it comes to Adele, it’s difficult to find something new to say. She has broken nearly every music record imaginable, received close to 100 music awards and has proven with her latest album, 25, that she is not just a one-hit wonder – that her talent runs exceedingly deep, touching something poignant in the hearts and souls of a fan base that increasingly defies categorization.
Yet, for all the interviews and articles on her music, approach, style and personality, capturing the essence of Adele and her music is surprisingly difficult. To string together a list of adjectives, to make comparisons and analogies, to use memes, gifs, videos or quotes somehow seems inadequate.
Her music is soulful, heartfelt, rare and real – and is undoubtedly “once in a generation” material – but it is also so much more, forcing us to reckon with an unattainable, mysterious quality that only adds to its allure.
In a world where mystery is quickly dispelled by access to a portal of answers at our fingertips (“Google it!”) – where life’s pace is nothing short of hurried – Adele invites us to do something rare: to stop and think, reflect and recall, question and feel.
Speaking to the fragility and resiliency of human existence, her music propels us into the realm of consciousness, compelling us to connect (and reckon) with our innermost selves. She proclaims in “Turning Tables” from 21:
“Next time I’ll be braver
I’ll be my own savior
When the thunder calls for me
Next time I’ll be braver
I’ll be my own savior
Standing on my own two feet”
And in a “Million Years Ago” on 25, she laments:
“I know I’m not the only one
who regrets the things I’ve done
sometimes I just feel it’s only me
who never became who they thought they’d be
I wish I could live a little more
look up to the sky not just the floor
I feel like my life is flashing by
and all I can do is just watch and cry”
Adele sings of love and heartbreak, regret and nostalgia, fear and desire, insecurity and hope – universal feelings and experiences that have long defined man’s tumultuous journey in life – but she does so with a conviction and legitimacy that only comes from having turned inward to grapple with those very things.
And that takes time – and effort.
In fact, Adele’s latest album evolved after discarding a series of songs she brought to record producer Rick Rubin who told her, “I don’t believe you.”
“It was clear she wasn’t the primary writer — many of the songs sounded like they might be on a different pop artist’s album,” said Rubin in a Rolling Stone article.*
Having tried to write songs about motherhood, “it wasn’t until Adele turned the lens back on herself that she was able to make progress,” writes Sam Lansky in a recent article for TIME magazine.*
“That’s when I decided to write about myself and how I make myself feel, rather than how other people make me feel,” Adele says in the interview.
Adele certainly isn’t the only artist to sing her feelings – or touch upon the universal aspects of human existence – but there is something to be said for her not rushing an album. After all, as Rubin has said, “it’s not just her voice singing any song that makes it special.”
That she recognizes the ephemeral, vacuous nature of social media only confirms her commitment to authenticity:
“How am I supposed to write a real record if I’m waiting for half a million likes on a photo? That ain’t real,” she says.
Indeed, it is only after making a diligent effort to reflect on ourselves – to quiet our own souls – that the most profound truths and insights are revealed; or, in this case, a song with meaning and depth is born.
Anyone can sing about love and heartbreak, regret and nostalgia, fear and desire, insecurity and hope, but what makes Adele an artist of enduring greatness is the conviction with which she sings.
“I’m not saying my album  is incredible, but there’s conviction in it,” she says. “And I believe the f*** out of myself on this album.”
I believe her, too.
And yet, there still remains a mysterious quality about her – an inkling that she could be an “old soul” born anew, someone too affecting for words. But, this somehow seems fitting for an artist whose songs have touched the very depths of millions of people across the globe, of various backgrounds and ethnicities, of generations old and new.
*Read the full Rolling Stone article, “Adele: Inside Her Private Life and Triumphant Return“, and the TIME article, “Adele Is Music’s Past, Present and Future.”