I’m trying to think of what Adele could do to make me hate one of her records.
Perhaps go full reggae? Honestly, there doesn’t seem to be much. By now you’ve all heard “Hello,” the first single from her third album, 25. It’s an incredibly simple song – a few slow piano chords, a less-than-sophisticated story about a woman hoping to get back in touch with an old lover who doesn’t care about her. Rinse, repeat, end. But when Adele sings it with that force-of-nature voice of hers, I’m swept away. I expect I wouldn’t like this song nearly as much from another singer – in fact, I may not like it at all. But Adele elevates everything she sings, even songs that don’t quite deserve her.
My first reaction to 25 was that Adele’s voice is the best thing about it. I meant that as a criticism, but then, of course her voice is the best thing about it. It’s one of the best things in music right now, and it has been ever since “Chasing Pavements” brought her onto the world stage. It’s hard to even describe that voice. It’s impossibly powerful and soulful, almost as if her voice is singing her, but at the same time Adele is in total control. (My earlier complaint that she has “one setting” seems churlish, and totally inaccurate now.) At times on 25 she channels Whitney Houston, but most of the time she just sounds like herself, and quite unlike anyone else around.
The main difference is in the songs this time. She approaches this material with more maturity, which sometimes feels like resignation and sometimes like blossoming perspective. 25 has been described as a make-up record, in contrast to the break-up record that was 21, but all that really means is she’s less angry, and there’s no “Rumor Has It” to be found. It’s is a slower, more patient record, and songs like “Remedy” offer healing balms instead of fire. It’s not a revolutionary shift, but Adele sounds more at peace on this album, which is nice. Even the songs riddled with jealousy, like “Send My Love (To Your New Lover),” or concerning breakups, like “Water Under the Bridge,” are gentler this time.
Adele worked with a cornucopia of pop producers, including Max Martin, Shellback, Greg Kurstin and Ryan Tedder, many of whom were responsible for synth-ing up Taylor Swift last year. That Adele remains seemingly committed to an organic feel is refreshing. Only a couple songs here sound like the work of these producers – most notably “River Lea,” her collaboration with Danger Mouse – and nothing sounds particularly modern. This is the right call. She has such an old-school welcome-to-church kind of voice that anything she sings is going to sound timeless, and surrounding that voice with too many flashy touches would detract from it.
And nothing here detracts from that voice. I keep going back to her singing here, but it’s just that captivating. The songs here that strip everything back to pianos and vocals (and occasional strings), like “Love in the Dark” and the aforementioned “Remedy,” truly shine a spotlight on that voice, and really, there isn’t anything like it. I’m not sure what Adele would have to do to get me to stop listening, but I know she didn’t do it on 25.
* * * * *
Speaking of remarkable voices, there’s Guy Garvey.
The frontman for Elbow, Garvey’s honeyed tones are reminiscent of Peter Gabriel at times, and suit his band’s patient, low-key ambient pop perfectly. As with most great singers, part of the thrill is hearing them in new contexts, and Garvey’s first solo album, Courting the Squall, provides those in spades. A harsher, looser and more fun record than Elbow’s usual fare, Squall finds Garvey lending that voice to tumbling, percussive rockers and horn-driven workouts, as well as a fair helping of glorious balladry.
The first song, “Angela’s Eyes,” serves as a fine warning that you’re not in Elbow territory anymore. Shambling drums, scratchy guitars, thumping stand-up bass and a screechy lead keyboard shuffle behind Garvey as he sings a rubbery blues from Mars. It’s a strong opener, and even if the record slides into more familiar territory with the title track and the lovely “Unwind,” it’s a good flag-planting song. While Garvey proves adept at shout-alongs, when he croons some of the more slowly unfolding songs here, he demonstrates that there are few who can deliver material like this as well as he can.
A good case in point is “Juggernaut,” a plaintive dirge built on three circling piano chords and a lilting melody. There isn’t much to this song, and it repeats itself often, but as a vehicle for Garvey’s smooth tenor, it’s delightful. While some of these songs would fit on Elbow albums, they’re performed here with a looser abandon (by members of I Am Kloot and The Whip), so a shuffle like “Yesterday” sounds like it could fall apart at any second. “Electricity” is a convincing slow jazz ballad, a duet with Jolie Holland, complete with shambolic saxophones. One track later, those saxes are getting a full workout on the stomping, Morphine-esque “Belly of the Whale,” a true surprise. (Even more surprising: the hat tip to “Careless Whisper” in the breakdown.)
Courting the Squall manages to be reminiscent of Elbow and to set up shop in a different town, selling different wares. Garvey’s voice is the key element, of course, and hearing it in these different settings is remarkable. Garvey proves his versatility here, and even if he doesn’t bring any of this looseness back to his band, he’s made a terrific down-to-earth detour here, one well worth picking up.
* * * * *
There are different kinds of voices, of course. A strong songwriter or record maker doesn’t even need to sing all that well to have his or her voice come through loud and clear. Take Jeff Lynne, for instance – here’s a guy who will never be lauded as a crooner, but whose voice as a songwriter and a producer is as distinctive as a fingerprint.
For the first time since forming Electric Light Orchestra in 1971, Lynne has put his name on the band’s latest album, Alone in the Universe. He didn’t really need to, though. All it would take is 30 seconds or so of opening track and first single “When I Was a Boy” to realize that this is pure Jeff Lynne. In fact, though billed to the band, Lynne played almost all of the instruments on Alone in the Universe, and produced it himself at his home.
Sometimes it sounds like it – Lynne has substituted dollops of synth strings for the more expensive real thing – but for the most part, this is what you’d expect. That’s no bad thing. Lynne is on form as a songwriter, and his signature is all over this album, from the chiming guitars on “Dirty to the Bone” to the lovely major-key shift near the end of the bluesy “Love and Rain.” This is a quick record, here and gone in 32 minutes, and it doesn’t offer any new insights into Jeff Lynne or his work. But it is an enjoyable slice of pure pop, and if you’ve missed Lynne’s songwriting voice, you’re going to like this.
Same goes for the new Squeeze album, Cradle to the Grave. Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook haven’t made an album together as Squeeze since 1998, but listening to this, you’d never know it. The two British gentlemen honed their distinctive sound together for more than 20 years before their hiatus, and it all comes flooding back within seconds here. The title track of the new album is a delirious barrelhouse dance-along that runs on pure optimism, and they start as they mean to go on.
There isn’t a weak song on Cradle to the Grave, and it’s clear that working together again has energized Difford and Tilbrook. “Happy Days” is almost giddy, a celebration of joy, and “Open” is a wedding song without any bitterness. The familiar Squeeze twisty-turny melodies are in full effect, and Tilbrook’s voice sounds the same as it did in the ‘80s and ‘90s. If anything, the band is wiser and more philosophical, more content. The last line on the album is “there’s nothing I would change,” and that sentiment breathes through these 12 songs.
I don’t have much to say about Cradle to the Grave, other than to say that it’s excellent. Squeeze has been away too long, and the pop world has been poorer for it. Difford and Tilbrook are fine on their own, and each has made worthy solo records. But there is something unique about their work together as Squeeze, something that speaks to that idea of a songwriting voice, and you can hear it all over Cradle to the Grave. And you should.
* * * * *
One last songwriter, and we’ll put this one to bed.
I’ve been a Sara Groves fan for all of four years now, which means I was a miserable 13 years late for this train. I came aboard with her seventh album, Invisible Empires, and I only picked that one up at all because Steve Hindalong of the Choir produced it. But what I found when I did was something remarkable – a songwriter working within contemporary Christian music, yet creating strikingly honest songs about the pain and wonder of life. When I venture into this corner of the music world, Groves is what I’m looking for – someone who isn’t trying to change my ideas about faith, but is singing from her own, viewing life through her particular prism without coloring it a shade of rose.
I liked Invisible Empires a great deal, particularly since it was a primarily piano-based affair. Groves’ eighth album, Floodplain, isn’t that at all – it’s mainly guitars, and is much more folksy – but it’s another beautiful collection of thoughts and observations, set to lovely music. Floodplain is about feeling all the difficulties of life, and diving right in anyway. It’s about connecting, about loving even the worst parts, about being grateful while still grasping on to every experience. “Expedition” is the mission statement – “Meet me at the river, I’ve fashioned us a raft and oar, we’re going on an expedition looking for lost time…”
“Second Guess Girl” is about trying to love through uncertainty: “It’s a hard world for a second-guess girl, with one hand and another, I try to take it in and it leaves me spinning, trying to love my sister and brother.” Groves sings this one over a skipping acoustic strum that only adds to its Indigo Girls feel. “I’ve Been Here Before” is about remembering that doubt and pain ebb away, and looking for grace. “On Your Mark” is about waiting for life to begin: “Tomorrow never really comes now does it, it’s always sailing up ahead, the SS Good Intention full of everything you said you ever wanted…” The album ends with a perfect pair – “Your Reality” is a love song dedicated to her husband, and “My Dream” is a gorgeous, allegorical tale of God and forgiveness as recounted by her grandfather.
All that is great stuff, but Groves actually made me cry twice on this record, and those two songs are the heart of Floodplain for me. The title track is an extraordinary metaphor for depression and anxiety: “Some hearts are built on a floodplain, keeping one eye on the sky for rain, you work for the ground that gets washed away… and the river it rushes to madness and the water spreads like sadness and there’s no high ground…” Somehow she transforms this into a song about reaching out past this pain and helping others through it, and it’s beautiful. One song later, on “Enough,” she’s acknowledging the hardship and misery and yet expressing gratitude: “In these patches of joy, these stretches of sorrow, there’s enough for today, there’ll be enough tomorrow…”
If a songwriter can make me cry, I’ll be in for life. I’m so happy I found Sara Groves. I’m happy whenever I find a songwriter of her caliber, one who can express faith and joy and sadness and love, always love, with an unflinching clarity and grace. She reminds me of Shawn Colvin – she’s at that level. I’m in love with Floodplain, and sad that I missed so many years of her work. I can’t wait to hear what she does next.
* * * * *
Next week, live albums galore. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.