Thursday, May 19
Better than: Staying with that tosser.
It is a special kind of emotional suicide to venture to the Upper West Side, under threat of impending thunderstorm, to hear a tortured British soulstress mourn the loss of a lover who sounds suspiciously like your last, knowing full well you’ll become so devastated that you’ll helplessly expel all your innermost turmoil onto the waiting blank page.
It is another thing to corner me in the women’s restroom and tell me about it, in torrid detail, until I must mistily confess my own place at the same crossroads.
Adele, no woman is safe from you.
And so I found myself perched against an empty bay of sinks in the Beacon Theatre restroom, missing more of the effortless runs and soars of the greatest soul singer of my generation as an impeccably dressed and tearstreaked young woman desperately heaved her iPhone in my direction. Spurred to action by Adele’s gut-churning delivery of the breakup ballad “Take It All” (off this year’s sublime, heart-rending 21), and being the sort of shrewd consumer who marched willingly to this sentimental guillotine, she wanted my disassociated eyes to read her entreaty to her long-detached ex-boyfriend. Did it sound good? Would it work? Did I know what this felt like? And I had to console her, poorly, that I knew all too well, having sent a vulnerable missive recently to someone for whom I still deeply care. This was all I could do to comfort this sad, hopeful girl as Adele’s wails thinly reached our ears–mostly, I wanted to tell her to go back upstairs to the concert hall, because there was a singer there offering far better advice than mine.
This is what lingered with me after Adele’s last luminous note–small, sharp proof of the spell that 21 has cast on the pop world. The 23-year-old’s second album is a heartbroken batch of journal poetry, brilliant in delivery and uncompromised in resolve. A universal agreement, by all who hear it, to embrace love’s melancholy and suffer the compunction of miserable false starts. Since 21‘s February release stateside, Adele has received the rapt mainstream praise her gorgeous voice has long deserved–and all she had to do was become the beatific figure for everyone who’s ever had a relationship end, singing tumultuous songs of regret with a confidence so prodigal and lovely they make us confident that a happy resolution must lie ahead in her love life (and, by extension, ours).
Live, she is dynamic and graceful, delivering casual augmentations to her songs that suggest her musical ease. After the vocal ferocity of her record, she wisely lets herself climb unabated; her seven-piece band jams on the faster cuts (“Rumour Has It” is a barn-burner, and a twanging country cover of the Steeldrivers’ “If It Hadn’t Been for Love” lands ably) but disappears repeatedly to leave her alone in center stage, one pianist at her right hand, to deliver the affecting ballads the audience clearly came for. “Chasing Pavements,” her first U.K. smash, is a teary endeavor, and she blinks them back gamely along with many of my seatmates. Set opener “Hometown Glory,” off her 2008 debut 19, delivers a fresh, searching intensity, and 21‘s “Don’t You Remember” is spare and unreserved, transfixing as few artists perched coolly on a chair could make it.
She could simply hand us a shovel and instruct us to dig, singing one heartsore track after the last, but she is a cheeky, unpretentious presence between songs, dancing self-consciously and glibly dissing that idiot ex-lover who inspired 21‘s sad couplets. “Motherfucker” pops up repeatedly in her stage banter, not unkindly and always punctuated with a reckless giggle similar to Amy Poehler’s; she shouts out her mother and best friend, both of whom are in the audience, and sends the room down like an expert stand-up when she recounts singing her own songs at a recent karaoke bash.
She is a staggering, almost unbearably beautiful singer; not perfect, as that’d do disservice to the very real, pained breaks in her notes, but so genuinely, unerringly powerful that is becomes a luxury to become lulled inside it. Pacing center stage in a sparkling cocktail dress, she seems full of such poise and worldly experience, it is difficult to remember that she is singing about the fresh confusion of young love. She seems above such fleeting angst, somehow, while also reassuring us through her elegance that she will persevere, and so will we.
This composure is most clear in her encore, when she straps on an acoustic guitar and finger-picks into “Someone Like You,” an unparalleled, crushing farewell to a lover, then slips into her pianist’s reverie and belts those cutting words with pure fragility, a strong woman humbled but not broken. And then, to show us (and, as she is giggling and cavorting onstage, probably also herself) resilience, she closes for good with the wistful, rousing “Rolling in the Deep,” her current single and first American No. 1, letting her band reach eager fervor and crooning along as she points the mic into the well-prepared audience.
And then, beaming broadly, she is gone. The crowd reveals itself to be a varied blend as they shuffle to the exits–some are tearstained, some are whistling. I hear snatches of regretful conversation between women, missing one man, still resenting another. Outside, alongside Broadway, I think I see the woman from the restroom walking briskly to the subway; she is smiling. If she is off to send the letter, I hope it works to her happiness; if she didn’t, I suspect it’s because Adele just made her feel stronger. She wouldn’t be alone in that.
Critical bias: “I have two ears and a heart, don’t I?”–Jack Donaghy
Overheard: “I’m gonna buy this album and send it to that asshole… and also my boyfriend.”
Random notebook dump: [doodle vaguely resembling Ethan Hawke, who sat near me]
I’ll Be Waiting
Don’t You Remember
Set Fire to the Rain
If It Hadn’t Been for Love
Take It All
Rumour Has It
[interlude for awkward/poignant restroom break]
One and Only
Make You Feel My Love
Someone Like You
Rolling in the Deep