Adele, Rolling In The Deep (2011)

Adele21

Artist: Adele
Title: Rolling In The Deep
Description: single; album track, 21
Label: XL
Release date: 2011
First heard: 2011

The romantic, disenfranchised outsider I once fancied myself as – in my early 20s, I might add – would no doubt be horrified by a choice of song by one of the biggest artists on the planet; a song from an album that – at time of writing in 2013 – has currently sold around 26 million copies worldwide; a song that in itself has sold well over 10 million copies; a song that is surely playing somewhere right now. But what can you do in the face of such blinding preeminence? To deny a place for Rolling In The Deep would be an act of pure snobbery. Adele is brilliant. Adele, the romantic, franchised insider, is in her 20s.

To say I’ve always liked Adele – her voice, her look, her manner – implies that I was in some way ahead of the pack. I wasn’t. I heard Chasing Pavements in January 2008 when everybody else did. (I prefer Hometown Glory, which had been her debut, but I don’t recall hearing it, even though it went Top 20.) It seems immaterial now but in April 2008 I mischievously posted a picture of Adele and a picture of Duffy on my blog and asked the simple question: “Adele or Duffy?” It drew 67 comments and the debate ranged from “Adele all the way” to “I liked Mercy,” passing through “Neither … Awful cod-soul”. And many mischievously voted for Laura Marling. Ha ha. Hey, I liked Mercy, too, but it seemed like a pertinent either-or for the times.

Either or, Adele won the war. While there are comparably successful female solo artists in the world today, they all seem to have to work so much harder to maintain their position. For Adele, it’s effortless. She sings; the world listens. She’s risen to record-breaking superstar status without touring her backside off, or selling her soul, or – at the time of writing in 2013 – losing a pound in weight, or showing her cleavage, or inviting Hello into her beautiful kitchen. It’s easy to admire her. But she’s not in The 143 because I admire her. Even if she hadn’t co-written Rolling In The Deep and had just sung it, it would be similarly honoured. That she did co-write it – the lyric, as per most of 21, was inspired by a break-up – makes it all the more personal. When she sings, “We could’ve had it a-a-a-aaall“, a young woman who seemingly does have it all, it gets you right there. Where it’s supposed to get you.

To praise her pipes is hardly to go out on a limb. But I love the smokiness in her voice; the cracks; the scratches; the way she pulls back from total vocal acrobatics; always patting her heart. She’s in a fine tradition and it’s not of “cod-soul”. She means it, man. And while her intonation on the poetic Hometown Glory (“short skirts, shorts and shades”) is pure North London, here, she’s gospel, rolling in the deep South, you might say, testifying to the “depths of your despair” and the “scars of love” that make her “breathless.” She can pull this shit off. Though produced by her enabling co-writer Paul Epworth (who also seems to have played a lot of the instruments), Rolling In The Deep nestles between tracks recorded by Rick Rubin, and even though the bulk of those sessions was scrapped, I like to think some of the dirt rubbed off. Allow me that.

Let us praise the arrangement: that understated guitar strum intro; the impact of that ragged bass drum; the pure drama of the sucked hi-hat before it all kicks off. And at one minute (“We could’ve had it all”), we’re into the exquisite but again never showy vocal layering: the lines the backing choir picks out are in clipped parenthesis (“You’re gonna wish you … never had met me … tears are gonna fall … rolling in the deep”), and yet they somehow push Adele’s more drawn-out, emotional crooning side of stage, where she must suffer in isolation. It’s a clever trick. (Seven backing singers are credited on the sleeve; power to them.)

With some songs in The 143, I enjoy the challenge of selling an entry, making it sing for those who aren’t familiar with it. Rolling In The Deep is so familiar, I suspect many treat it as wallpaper. But while many more fashionable items come and go on my iPod, I have found myself returning again and again and again to 19 and 21, and regard them both as landmark albums of the early 21st century. Adele can get more and more successful if she likes. It won’t put me off. Knocking points off her for being popular would be like denying Elvis, or Vivaldi, or Spielberg, or Leonardo Da Vinci. It can’t always be about obscurity and showing off, although both have their place, believe me.

I still like Mercy, by the way.

The Elgins, Put Yourself In My Place (1966)

Elgins-put-yourself-in-my-place

Artist: The Elgins
Title: Put Yourself In My Place
Description: B-side of Darling Baby; reissued as A-side
Label: Tamla-Motown
Release date: 1965; 1971
First heard: circa 1988

I would dearly love to tell you that the label above is from my own original 1966 UK copy of Put Yourself In My Place by the Elgins. It isn’t. It’s borrowed from the rather excellent 45cat website, which sells old vinyl. I do not own it as a single. I own it via the also rather excellent 3CD set Capital Gold Motown Classics (it’s on CD2). But I do know this: I fell in love with it instantly, and I’m almost positive I first heard it on the radio in the 80s, without even knowing who sang it. The possibility hangs over this entry that the version I first heard was by the Supremes. But for me, the first recording, by the Elgins, is by far the best – and how often do you get to say that about a tune also sung by Diana Ross?

There will be other Motown singles in The 143, so let’s get this said. Put Yourself In My Place is a perfect example of a Motown song that came off the conveyor belt, machine-tooled if you like for the newly-minted young pop audience. (Swiss architect Le Corbusier called a house “a machine for living”; these records are “machines for dancing.”)

There lingers a cloud of rock snobbery about “manufactured” bands, about artists who get their songs written for them, but classic songwriting – and classic song-making – cannot be faked. And in any case, to use the qualification of writing your own songs as a stamp of authenticity would discount Elvis, Bing and Frank, not to mention a large proportion of the artists on Motown, the greatest pop label in history. (Also, to discount the “production line” methodology of Motown or dismiss Hitsville as a “factory” would be to deny the skilled and intuitive musicianship of the house band – collectively, the Funk Brothers – and the angelic singers themselves.)

With that on the contextual statute books, what’s on the record? I won’t lift the Elgins’ biography from Wikipedia; suffice to say, they came and they went, with only one LP to their name (and even their name changed about three times), but what this single tells us is that they could sing, and that lead vocalist Saundra Edwards was a match for any other in Detroit, and in fact sounds a little like Smokey Robinson. Written and produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland, whose conjoined genius needs no further eulogy from me, it runs on an ascending, somersaulting piano riff that lends an edgy urgency to Edwards’ plea for empathy after sour times (“Put yourself in my place/You’d learn to treat me right/And you wouldn’t stay out late at night”).

It was first issued on the flip of Darling Baby at the end of 1965, before my first birthday, but issued in the UK in 1966, through a licensing agreement with EMI. A reissue in 1971 made it a hit here, too, having gone Top 10 in the R&B charts over there.

A saccharine, heady, insistent tune that grips your heart, even in that moment of instant summer you can feel the author’s pain. Bittersweet, I think they call it.