rolling in the deep

So here’s something that never happens in real life: people do not start to walk away from whoever they’re talking to, then suddenly freeze, back turned, when they hear that person add something unexpected. However, this happens all the time on television, because it enables both actors to simultaneously face the camera. “Vivian,” a guy will say to Vivian, “before you go — you should know that I made a copy of the ambassador’s confession.” (Shot of Vivian’s stunned face. She does not turn around.) Vivian: “I was the only one who saw that confession.” (And so forth.)

Likewise, only in songs (and in the novel A Wrinkle In Time) do people do things “to the beat.” In Adele’s song “Rolling in the Deep,” which is certainly a contender for The Song of 2011, her royalties-obsessed boyfriend mysteriously “played it to the beat” while they were together.

After a while, as you listen to the song, you realize that she clearly means “played it to the hilt,” but either didn’t know that phrase, or else thought that “hilt” would sound too wrong when the listener is expecting something that rhymes with “deep.”

The production is built around her voice and the key, impossible-to-decipher phrase “rolling in the deep.” She stays just off the beat with her vocals, summoning a syncopated chaos, and paving the way for the explosion of sound in the chorus, where the rhythm section is perfectly separated from her singing, creating a huge, stormy cauldron of vintage sounds crashing and booming around a heartbeat bass and the intermittent shouts of her chorus, which in the context sound like her own tempestuous thoughts assembling into brief harmonies. The thrill of the song is that both Adele and the listener not only survive this, we actually ride it, like a ship that isn’t quite swamped. That’s what “rolling in the deep” comes to mean: surviving unbelievable agony, and somehow transforming agony into blazing life.

And yet, the more you listen to the song, the more you have the uncomfortable feeling of everyone else listening to it. I constantly think about Lester Bangs describing Miles Davis’s album “On the Corner” as a scary album that proves everyone, on every corner, thinks of themselves as a cool cat in a world of dead-eyed zombies. Ironically, this perception creates the alienating reality it describes. Same goes for “Rolling in the Deep.” I definitely want this song to create a new wave of interest in classic, jazzy production and rhythm piano, but as a song there’s something terrible about it, about all these people in gyms and subways and under-maintained cars all rolling in the deep, drowning in self-righteousness and trying to make the best of Adele’s unreflective, unedited songwriting. She looms so large in our consciousness right now, and yet these mushy edges to her lyrics are going to be her undoing, just like the mushy songs that she uses to fill up her underwritten albums. In ten years nobody will remember her. In five years, maybe.

It’s not depressing to throw china against a wall. It’s depressing to throw china against a wall when nobody’s watching or listening. The china still breaks, but like those Sarah McLachlan songs that you never play any more, it doesn’t make a sound.