Is Adele now at the peak of her career?
She was the richly deserving queen of this week's Brit Awards, but what next for the gifted Londoner?
The Adele Adkins I watched on Wednesday night at the Brits, dominating the awards ceremony with her record four wins and show-stealing performance, was both completely different from and yet utterly the same person as the teenager I first watched in the autumn of 2007. Nine miles across London, inside the fading red velvet walls of the Soho Revue bar, the then 19-year-old aspiring singer-songwriter took the money from the gig-goers at the door with a cheeky cackle before perching on a bar stool and performing a short set of songs, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. She was dressed in a cardigan and jeans and her light auburn hair was piled in a bun over a heavy fringe, framing her puppyish eyes, while she sang dreamy, poetic lyrics full of observations on life and love in the city in her strong London accent. She was sweet and shy and funny with a voice so powerful that when it soared it made my heart pound.
The Adele I saw at the O2 this week was still nearly all those things but that shy girl had gone. In her place was a woman, resplendent in her own gorgeousness, a vampish siren in a red, plunging gown - like Jessica Rabbit with the dirty laugh of Sid James. Adele looked like she owned the room because she did. From the opening minutes when she received Best British Female until she took to the stage at the end of the night, the Brits this year were Adele. And Adele looked like she had not only accepted this, but at last was enjoying her ascension to the throne of British pop.
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At the 2012 Brits, having won two categories, she ended up swearing in frustration at being cut off during her speech, yet for the most part on Wednesday, Adele was poised and calm but never imperious. She made pithy, heartfelt speeches, diplomatically thanking different people in each category, and cracking jokes. Usually incredibly private, she effusively thanked her partner, Simon Konecki, for putting up with her while she wrote her third album and declaring her love for her son, Angelo, whom she referred to as Peanut. She was even confident enough to take a pop at her own US record label, Sony, and one of the most powerful songwriters in music, Dr Luke, when she made a bold statement in support of the pop singer Kesha, currently embroiled in a legal fight with him over allegations of sexual assault.
Underpinning the adoration of Adele on the night was a sense of utter relief from the music industry. With album sales so freakishly high for any contemporary act - 57 million (Taylor Swift has sold 38 million worldwide over five albums compared to Adele's three) - it is hard to see her being deposed from this throne in the next decade. Certainly, 2016 will be like a lap of honour, with a world tour planned, and another likely clutch of wins at the Grammys in 2017, when her latest album 25 will be eligible for inclusion. Over the course of her career so far she has won 95 awards, nowhere near the 181 Beyonce has collected, or Michael Jackson's haul of near 800, but more than the 22 Dido picked up during her period of international success or the 21 Kate Bush has got over her entire 40-year-career, including only one Brit award.
The good times will continue to roll for Adele, but she might still look back and see this as a high-water mark. It is difficult to see her sweeping the board like this again, simply because no artist sustains an endless run of brilliant, acclaimed records. Also, audiences and fashions change. Fans rushed out and bought 25 in their droves before they had heard it because they were so excited Adele was back at all. But in the cold light of day, it is not nearly as fierily brilliant as 21. It is a record in which Adele has swapped the white-heat of her young emotions - anger, lust, despair, ecstasy - for the sepia tones of settled adult life. It is a record fundamentally about contentment, nostalgia and ultimately the joy of singing. Adele performed the second single from the album, When We Were Young, at the end of the Brits. It is a sweet, melancholy, grown-up ballad about some of the innocent fun she misses, and about missing her younger self. It was released in January, admittedly without much fanfare, but none the less, it only grazed the top 30 and got nowhere near the sales of her first single, Hello.
Adele's poise slipped only once on Wednesday night, when she burst into tears as she picked up her third award for Global Success, presented via video link by astronaut Tim Peake. With mascara running down her face, she sobbed, "I got really lost for a while and I didn't know if I'd ever come back." Suddenly, she was that teenager on the Soho Revue Stage again, overwhelmed by the scale and ferocity of the success that engulfed her in 2011 and her struggle to adjust not just to fame, but to who she was as a singer and writer once the frame of her normal existence, which she relied on so heavily, changed dramatically, and then even more so when she became a mother.
The music industry might be giving Adele these awards because of her sales but her fans are trying to thank her just for existing, for being her wonderful, adorable, utterly British, unchanging, swearing, laughing self. They love the way she sings like Tottenham's answer to Aretha Franklin, but most of all they love her for coming back to them.
The Brits were a reminder that Adele is a singer who gives pleasure, whether she is performing or goofing about on stage or even crying. It is worth celebrating her choice to continue sharing that talent with us. 25 is a transitional record where Adele is finding out for the first time who she is as a singer without the drama in her life. I just hope all these awards buy her the freedom to release records that maybe don't sell millions, and don't get the gongs, such as the album she apparently wrote about becoming a mother, which she shelved because she thought it was too boring.
Whitney Houston still holds the record for the most decorated artist of all time and nobody can think that all the hardware in the world made her any happier. Let's hope Adele enjoys her moment in the sun a bit more and uses it to find the musical future she really wants.
- The Telegraph, London