As one of our few remaining monocultural pop-superstars Adele might be the only artist who can make physical-album sales-charts look like it’s the mid-’90s again – but when she burst onto the scene there were serious questions about whether she could withstand the massive hype that preceded her debut record. The climate that she emerged in, one with a Back to Black-sized hole and seismic anticipation for the next soulful U.K. songstress, makes it extremely impressive that she not merely became a household name, but escaped unscathed in the first place.
Adele’s 19, released back in January 2008, is a fascinating showcase for her nascent talents and the stripped down songwriting that she succeeded at early then converted into stadium-sized ballads later on. It’s also a reminder of just how impactful the pre-album hype cycle can feel at the time, particularly for a teenager with the weight of the British music industry on her shoulders, and how easy it is to forget all that when an artist transcends it.
Adele burst onto the scene after some homemade demos uploaded to MySpace found their way to XL’s Richard Russell, and she went on to top the BBC’s Sound of 2008 poll on the strength of just one official single, ‘Hometown Glory’. She followed that with ‘Chasing Pavements’, a single that foreshadowed the ability to shift the soul-bearing intimacy of her songwriting between quiet ballads and the palatal sound that defined 25-era hits like ‘Water Under the Bridge’ and ‘Hello.’
Nothing if not self-aware, Adele knew from the start that the circumstances around her meteoric rise could easily be held against her. “I feel,” she told The Guardian’s Sylvia Patterson in January 2008, “like I’m being shoved down everyone’s throat. My worst fear is my music won’t connect with the public.”
At the time, the British pop music world was strong on talent, but lacking in one transcendent, culture-spanning superstar. Winehouse was still the most important figure in music, but her personal demons were coming to light more and more each day, and the massive success of Back to Black created a need for more soulful and truly fresh pop acts in the U.K.
Lily Allen was a force, but had not quite yet reached the heights she would with 2009’s ‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’. Corinne Bailey Rae was a certified star after the success of ‘Put Your Records On’ and her self-titled debut, though that was back in 2006. Duffy, who many would come to view as something of a declawed Amy Winehouse, was still a few months from the one-two punch of ‘Mercy’ and ‘Warwick Avenue.’
And connect with the public her songs surely did. From 19, ‘Chasing Pavements’ and ‘Make You Feel My Love’ both reached top five on the UK Singles Chart, while ‘Hometown Glory’ and ‘Cold Shoulder’ each nestled comfortably within the Top 20. In the U.S., she won 2009 Grammys for Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, while also being nominated for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.
There were some who balked at Adele’s first body of work. Staggering as it is, the now-maligned Duffy’s debut, Rockferry, was received with similar critical enthusiasm when it was released in March 2008. There was a sentiment expressed that Adele’s witty, self-effacing personality was absent from 19, subsumed by sombre ballads. It’s true that, as a teenager, Adele was never the musical free spirit Winehouse managed to be, but her confessional lyrics and ability to convey pain showed an unique musical personality, albeit one that did meaningfully differ from her interview persona.
In a tepid review, The Guardian’s Dorian Lynskey wrote that there was “scant emotional heft behind Adele’s prodigiously rich voice, little bite to her songwriting.” The downplays continued across the sphere too, with NME citing the record “plays it dead safe.”
But, there’s plenty on 19 that doesn’t play it dead safe, and in some ways the record has more deviations from the Adele formula than ’21’ or ’25’. ‘Cold Shoulder,’ with its nimble, almost hip-hop percussion, swelling strings, and vivid depiction of the unique hurt that comes when there’s dissonance between your emotions and your experiences (the track centers on an unfaithful partner who the singer can’t seem to fully shirk). Adele has a knack for creating drama of biblical proportions on tracks – much like ‘Set Fire to the Rain’ which was to follow several years later, ‘Cold Shoulder’s “You shower me with words made of knives” show the beginnings of that penchant.
And some in the U.K. critical community were quick to fall head over heels for Adele the way that millions would in the years to come. Caspar Llewellyn Smith wrote for The Guardian that, “Rather than screaming for attention, there’s an artistically focused stillness at the centre of so many of these bruising love songs.” Chris Long of the BBC said, “It’s a genuinely touching, maturely considered and brilliantly sung opus that belies her titular age.”
Maturity has always been key to the appeal of Adele, even as a 19 year old she seemed more in tune with herself than any pop star peddling escapism, it’s what’s made her a Beyonce-level common denominator among diehard and casual music fans, and it’s what kept the moments on 19 that could have been missteps from going off the rails.
‘Right As Rain’ with its splashes of Rhodes, has a distinct Winehouse sensibility, but Adele’s approach to delivering her vocals helps to showcase why she was able to escape the late singer’s shadow in a way that someone like Duffy never did. Where Winehouse was brash and brutally blunt, Adele steers into the pain and looks for the lessons in it. There’s no escapism here, and Adele’s commitment to sitting in and observing her feelings has been one of the primary consistencies across her trio of albums.
‘Tired’ is a true rarity among Adele’s discography, it’s a ballad dressed in electronic trappings with programmed drums and plinking synths. It’s not quite the Jamie xx ‘Rolling in the Deep’ remix, but it’s an intriguing snapshot of a subtly different path she’s only really explored on a track like ‘Send My Love (To Your New Lover)’ from 2015’s ’25’.
Between ‘Tired’, ‘Right As Rain’ and her hugely popular spin on Bob Dylan’s ‘Make You Feel My Love’, 19 does feel a bit more broadly-positioned than her ensuing albums, but even back then Adele’s voice was so singular and her ability to capture the nuances of heartache so powerful that looking back it’s easy to get past those subtle tweaks to the Adele formula, and even enjoy their quirkiness.
Now that she’s one of the most entrenched musical forces in the world, there’s something surreal and captivating about us ever worrying about the hype swallowing her up. We really shouldn’t be surprised though, in her Sound of 2008 BBC interview, the singer made as much clear.
“I’m not really feeling very pressurised, I thought I would,” she said. Certainly if she’s not fussed when it comes to anticipation and public endorsement, then perhaps we shouldn’t be putting the pressure on either.
Words by Grant Rindner. You can follow Grant on Twitter, here.