The grieving but unbowed woman – an archetype stretching back to Greek tragedy – has a new figurehead. On her second album 21, Adele Adkins turns a failed relationship into big, gutsy torch songs of the highest quality. The result has touched a deep chord with the public. 21 spent 11 weeks at the top of the UK charts, a record by a female act. It has sold almost 5m copies worldwide. Once viewed as a blander version of Amy Winehouse, Adele has found her voice in the most spectacular fashion.
That voice rang out from the darkness at the start of the show, the singer delivering the opening lines to “Hometown Glory” from some unseen vantage point offstage. If the ploy was meant to suggest mystique, it didn’t work. Adele, 22, is a sock-it-to-’em singer of the old school. When she sings a song it stays sung. In a small, heaving venue such as the Institute, opened a century ago as a Methodist chapel, the effect proved devastating.
Her vocals, framed by rumbling drums and grave piano, were robust and dramatic. The commanding “I’ll Be Waiting” cast her not as a pop Penelope pining for her Odysseus, but a full-throated soul woman ordering the errant fool to return. “Don’t You Remember” slipped into maudlin mode, but the set recovered with the defiant ballad “Turning Tables”.
“Take It All” was gospel-soul in the classic Aretha Franklin mould. “Rumour Has It” found her confronting an unfaithful lover with controlled anger and stomping percussion. The banal plodder “Chasing Pavements”, from 19, emphasised the transformation from her slick stage school past to the unstoppable torch singer of today, a metamorphosis cemented by the storming rendition of “Rolling in the Deep” that closed the set.
While the music trafficked in meaty emotions, Adele moving herself to tears during her cover of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love”, she cut a different figure in person: cockney-accented, cup of tea in hand, nattering to the audience like they were old pals. But the contrast between her down-to-earth personality and the emotional heft of her singing wasn’t incongruous. It went to the heart of her appeal. Powerful emotions aren’t just the stuff of Greek tragedy: they’re part of what it means to be ordinary.