November 22, 2021

Adele Bares Her Soul while Lana Puts Us to Sleep


It will probably surprise some of my audience that I like Adele. While I’ve shared a variety of musical styles with you all, British soul has not been one of them. I had, however, acquired my taste for it back in the 1980s with the likes of Allison Moyet and, to some degree, Kirsty McColl. Both women wove soul into the pop and dance music that was part of the scene in their time. Adele has done the same over the past 13 years, merging classic soul with the R&B influenced pop music that has been prevalent for much of the 21st century. Like McColl and Moyet, Adele not only has a great voice but a unique one. When you hear a song sung by Adele in her amazing alto voice, it is instantly recognizable. Her music cannot be confused with anyone else’s. Adele has a signature sound that is unmistakably “Adele”.

Over the years, Adele’s vocal prowess has only gained in strength, and this is most evident on her newest album, 30. It is a tour de force of soul but with influences from other styles. “Women Like Me’, for example, includes Latin rhythms, while “Oh My God” is soul mixed with modern hip hop infused pop. “Cry Your Heart Out” is effervescent pop with 70s R&B in the mix. Adele pulls off all of these mashups because soul still underpins the songs, and her voice carries it higher than another current artist could possibly do.

30 really shines on the ballads. “Easy On Me” is classic Adele in the vein of “Hello” and is already dominating playlists and radio airplay. “My Little Love” is a classic soul ballad that Barry White would have recorded back in the 70s including the “oooooo oooooo” from the background singers. The violin heavy orchestration sounds like it’s right out of 1974. “I Drink Wine” is destined to end up on breakup playlists. “Hold On” is a slow gospel soul gem masquerading as a love song. During the chorus, Adele trades off with her background singers “Just Hold On/ (Hold On)”. It’s a soaring soul ballad that few singers, aside from Aretha Franklin, could pull off; Adele does it with obvious ease.

There are a few flaws in 30. A number of songs end with Adele speaking lyrics over her backup singers, as if she is talking to someone, perhaps a lover. That technique works in gospel where someone preaches over the choir, or in 60s and 70s soul songs (Barry White and Lou Rawls used to do this.) When Adele does this, with her obvious English accent, it sounds contrived and unnatural.

The album’s beginning was inauspicious. “Strangers By Nature” sounds like a 50s jazz standard. I worried that Adele would go down the route of Billie Eilish and try to do all of these unusual styles, none of which suited her voice or audience. Thankfully, it was only a false positive. The rest of the album dispensed with silly conceits and dove headfirst into what makes Adele great.

30 is at least as good as 25, perhaps even better. As a songwriter, 30 shows a mature Adele who can carry a variety of subjects – pain, sorrow but also joy, excitement and especially love – while keeping a deep understanding of soul as a foundation. Her voice is gaining in strength and control, making it a more exciting instrument. Let’s hope she can keep on this trajectory in the future.

Another singer whose voice I admire, Lana Del Rey, has also released a new album, Blue Banisters. This is the second album Del Ray has released in 2021, after Chemtrails Over the Country Club, and it is at least as disappointing as Chemtrails. Gone is her signature trip hop beats in favor what sounds like 40s crooning. I don’t understand this fascination with songs that sound like jazz standards that is driving pop stars to devote large amount of the output to them. Without the trip hop backing, Lana Del Rey doesn’t even sound sad (as she’s been accused of in the past), just dull. I thought Chemtrails was tiresome; Blue Bannisters is an exercise in mind-numbing tediousness. “Beautiful”, which features just Del Rey and a piano, is so sleepy and repetitive, it could be used as an anesthetic.

Besides being boring, Blue Banisters is, occasionally, just plain weird. “Interlude – The Trio” sounds like music from a bad (very bad) Spaghetti Western. It’s so out of place that it’s jarring. There are several tunes that sound like they were plucked from a movie soundtrack especially “Arcadia”. Perhaps Del Rey is trying to recapture the glory of “Young and Beautiful” from The Great Gatsby soundtrack. If so, Blue Banisters is a swing and a miss.

The only song that could honestly say that I liked even a little was “Dealer”. It’s gritty trip hop… sort of. On earlier Lana Del Rey albums, it would be an outtake. On this album, it’s the highlight. While Blue Bannisters is not as bad as Chemtrails Over the Country Club, it suggests that Lana Del Rey is done as a force in music. Her entire year’s worth of output is so lifeless that it bodes poorly for the future.

The contrast between Adele’s newest work and Lana Del Rey’s couldn’t be more striking. Adele has spent 6 years maturing in her craft, producing a single album that is beautiful and intense. Lana Del Rey, however, has pumped out two albums in one year – a hefty output for any artist – all of which is dross. This is a sharp downturn considering the excellence of 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell. Gone is the trip hop, meaningful lyrics, and atmosphere in favor of songs that are so lifeless they can’t end fast enough… and seem to go on forever.

Adele’s 30 is not perfect, but it comes close. This is a hopeful indicator for her future work. Lana Del Rey has fallen so far, so fast that only the word “freefall” can describe her music. So, in the future, expect more greatness from Adele and sadness from Del Rey.