When new Adele music was announced I was ready to cry over the releases—it was just a matter of how much and how ugly my tears would be. But when I heard “Hello” for the first time a few hours ago the song had me beyond crying. I was so stirred, so taken aback, that I was just staring into space.
What makes “Hello” such an amazing song, and what I hope will make it a hit song, is its ability to resonate with people and really tap into human emotion the way it did with me.
One of the functions of art is to present human life, and as simplistic as that may sound, many people actually have a difficult time articulating human complexities such as emotions. We’re often taught to categorize, systematize our emotions—sadness exists on its own, happiness exists on its own—so many times we oversimplify them and forget that our responses are always complex, never absolute. Art becomes art when someone is able to present human experience in its entirety—I believe in colloquial terms that’s called “mixed emotions.”
And boy does Adele mix her emotions well.
The songs I personally adore are songs that are so happy they make me want to cry, or so heart-wrenching they make me smile. It’s not masochistic or anything though, because this is the kind of complexity that we actually feel in real life. So if I feel that from a song, then it has done its job emotionally.
“Hello” takes it one step further though because the song, and its lyrics, inherently present complex emotions.
Let’s tackle the lyrics first, because unlike a lot of pop songs I’ve reviewed in the past, “Hello” is one of the few songs wherein the lyrics, the melody, and the instrumentation all affect each other. (And partially to find a use for my literature degree!) The lyrics are a monologue, assumedly by Adele, in the context of a phone call. Whether this phone call is hypothetical or not is irrelevant because let’s be real, this is what many of us will want to say to an ex, a former lover, or someone we had (have?) feelings for.
But the phone call, I think, has two functions: it establishes Adele’s detachment because it isn’t a face to face encounter, but it also implies her agency—she makes the call, she goes out of her way to do it, she is the sole speaker, she is “in power.” And I think the second function is especially important to understand because this is generally what a lot of people want but don’t get from breakups and departures: absolute control over the situation. If we all had our way during breakups, they wouldn’t be as heart-wrenching. At the same time, this position of power Adele holds during the conversation is only possible precisely because of the breakup—because she and the person she’s talking to no longer have an emotional bond. Emotions bring people together—whatever they may be, whoever they are. They don’t even have to be romantic, but as we see in the line “but it don't matter, it clearly doesn't tear you apart anymore,” the Adele and the addressee are at different emotional stages. Adele is, for lack of a better term, still “hung up” over that person, who has already moved on emotionally, physically, etc.
In terms of the actual lyrics, they mirror the melodic and instrumental elements of “Hello” perfectly. The melody captures the tone, the dynamics, of an actual spoken conversation—the actual emotions are exaggerated and highlighted, but the dynamics or the proportions of the intensity remains the same. And in reality, it’s those proportions that are most important.
The verses begin with “hello, it’s me” and “hello, how are you”—greetings and small talk. This again denotes the detachment between Adele and the person she’s talking to—you make small talk with people you don’t know well which is emotional detachment, or people you haven’t seen in a long time, which is temporal detachment. The melody reflects the shyness in this stage of the conversation—because they’re not on the same emotional or temporal plane yet, Adele is still a bit hesitant and shy to reveal her own personal feelings. Hence the expression “catching up” with people you haven’t seen in a long time.
This progresses slowly, as the premise of their relationship is quickly revealed: they haven’t seen each other in years, Adele hasn’t “healed” yet, and their relationship is something Adele treasured because she was “dreaming about who we used to be.”
By the time the chorus hits, Adele’s emotions and motives are clear. She’s talking to someone she cared about, someone who once shared the same emotional plane as her, and who she wants to reconnect with. There is no clear implication that this is a romantic, or even full-fledged, rekindling—but the initiative to reconnect in any way possible is very clear in the lyrics and the entire premise of the phone call. That need to reconnect is also very obvious in the melody: Adele literally raises her voice, therefore not only revealing the emotions she tried to gradually reveal, but also emphasizing that if the person on the other end should listen to any part of Adele’s monologue, it’s the chorus. This is what she feels strongly about: her apologies, but also her subtle blow when she ends the chorus with, “but it don't matter, it clearly doesn't tear you apart anymore.”
Lastly, I’d like to point out the fact that Adele is able to achieve all this within the basic structure of a pop song: verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle eight-final chorus. If you think about it, “Hello” is repetitive not only in structure but also in lyrics and melody—there are no lyrical or major melodic variations in all three choruses, the verses differ in lyrics and marginally in melody. While we dislike other songs for being repetitive because they show no variety, Adele unashamedly uses that variety to create something that genuinely resonates with us, and resonates so much that a quality we usually deem as uncreative, becomes creative. “Hello” is stirring because it’s able to capture the complex reality of emotions, process it, and turn it into something beautiful. There is something emotionally taxing, yet satisfying, about coming face-to-face with your own emotions. And there is something reassuring yet slightly painful about knowing other people are capable of feeling the same way. So it’s not really that Adele turned a beautiful song into a formulaic pop release, it’s that she was able to make a beautiful song despite the formula.