Music prognosticators eagerly looking into their crystal balls at the beginning of 2011 could hardly have foretold the year that was about to unfold. Lady Gaga’s album Born This Way, widely anticipated to be the biggest release of the year, would not ultimately finish the race in front. In fact, it would only sell slightly more than a third as many copies as the sophomore release from British neo-soul singer Adele, whose album 21 has now moved more than 6 million copies in the U.S. (plus 11 million more internationally) and topped the Billboard 200 for 17 weeks (and counting).
And even though the calendar now says 2012, 21 shows no signs of losing steam.
Perhaps that’s because few singers in recent memory can match Adele’s haunting, practically preternatural ability to vocally inhabit passion and pain. For anyone who’s ever endured heartbreak and then tried to pick up the shattered pieces, Adele serves as a kind of poet laureate, vicariously venting the ache and agony of love gone awry. Indeed, the first two chart-topping singles from 21, “Rolling in the Deep” and “Someone Like You,” plumbed the very depths of romantic brokenness and disillusionment. And nothing’s changed with her latest No. 1, “Set Fire to the Rain,” a song that smolders in the ashes of another passionate relationship that’s burned to the ground.
Things started off well, it seems. So well, in fact, that Adele gave her heart completely. “I let it fall, my heart/And as it fell, you rose to claim it.” It was a love in which she found hope that lifted her out of the darkness and toward something like salvation: “It was dark, and I was over/Until you kissed my lips, and you saved me.”
Kissing led to more, and Adele recalls feeling like she could spend eternity with her lover. “When I lay with you/I could stay there/Close my eyes/Feel you here forever/You and me together/Nothing is better.”
But all was not as it seemed. “There’s a side to you,” we hear, “that I never knew, never knew/All the things you’d say/They were never true, never true/And the games you’d play/You would always win, always win.”
So all she can do is “set fire to the rain/And I threw us into the flames/Where I felt something die/ … Well it burned while I cried/ … Let it burn/Oh, oh, oh/Let it burn.”
Despite the immolation of her heart and hope, despite her knowledge that the man who betrayed her is a deceptive liar, however, so great is his hold on her memory that she finds herself hoping still for a rekindling of that destructive flame. “Sometimes I wake up by the door/ … I can’t help myself from looking for you.”
This is the razing of a soul set to incredibly beautiful music. With her soaring voice, untouched by modern trends toward Auto-Tuning and metallic, club-inspired choruses, Adele delivers a gut-wrenching, cautionary tale about the danger of prematurely giving away your heart and your body without the protection of marriage’s commitment.
And she doesn’t even really mean for it to be all that. She’s just lamenting her lot in love. Listeners will need to supply their own moral message here. But I guess in the context of a song that’s so lyrically restrained, that’s not always a bad thing.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews.