As a music fan, consumer, and review, it’s hard for me to detach my reaction to a new album from the expectations game.
That’s especially true of fourth albums, like Adele’s 30.
Everyone loves an indelible debut record. When we love an artist’s first album, we fall in love with the songs, but we’re also deeply curious about their potential. What path will they take? How will their follow-up sound?
We applaud when an artist releases a strong second album. We are amazed when it is even better than the first. When we love an artist’s second album, we fall in love with the songs, but we’re beginning to measure a vector. They’ve moved in a direction, even if that direction is to provide more of the exact same. Will they continue to progress in that same way?
Third albums are tricky. That’s when things become interesting. Third albums are when we think we really know something about an artist. We have a reasonable sample size of songs. We have three points from which we can triangulate position and estimate future progress.We can say, “the artist usually does this or that.” We can decide if their progression has been linear or if it took a hard turn into unexpected territory.
That is why fourth albums are dangerous. They are the realm of proving or disproving all those things that we thought we understood. They have the potential take an artist’s progression from a line – or even a triangle – to some wild uneven quadrilateral that might even intersect with itself. They’re often the moment where an artist solidifies who they really are and who they will continue to be for many years to come.
I think most people navigate that musical map subtly. Unconsciously. The average listener has some expectations that might be fulfilled or shattered, but I don’t think they consider a fourth album to be particularly significant.
I’m not like that. I can’t turn off the part of my brain that dissects songwriting and production, and that draws out vectors of musical style and influences. I am graphing each release as a point on a musical map and drawing the vectors between them. I can’t help it.
Adele has had a textbook progression through these first three steps Memorable debut? Check. Explosive classic sophomore effort that raised her to worldwide acclaim? Check. Stylistically rangy third record that at once confirmed her strengths but pushed some of her boundaries. Check.
Now, 11 years after her debut but a whole 6 after her third record, we’re getting that fourth album. The dangerous one. It’s dangerous for Adele, but dangerous for me, too – because I feel the weight of all of those expectations.
I had to listen to it two different ways. First, just to hear the songs. Then, to hear them with the weight of all of that piled on top of them.
It was terrible both ways, which leaves me fearful of Adele’s future trajectory.
30 – Adele
Adele is the biggest blockbuster voice in popular music today, both in spectacle and in sales. That makes any album of hers a hotly anticipated release. 30, in particular, has been inflated even further. The first in six years! The first since she got divorced! Got thin! And it’s accompanied by a pair of pan-Atlantic concert specials! And an interview with Oprah!
I don’t know that the spectacle could get any bigger. It threatens to overshadow the features that made Adele so famous in the first place: her massive voice, her clear-eyed songwriting, and her biting sense of humor.
Adele is famous for using that massive voice to command attention on her emotional ballads just as well as she uses it to power surprising, genre-defying pop hits like “Chasing Pavements” and “Rolling in the Deep.” She has never lacked for strong material in either category. Her songwriting skills are as notable as her vocal power, even if her vocals sometimes overshadow them.
Now at a pinnacle of her popularity, 30 finds Adele coasting through a set of charmless songs without an earworm refrain to be found. Suddenly, she is putting the schmaltz at center stage rather than her songwriting acumen. I don’t begrudge her the sales, but I wish they came with a more enjoyable record. [Read more…] about 30 – Adele | the expectations game