Adele captured the nation’s hearts—especially the broken ones—with her first chart-topper, “Rolling in the Deep.” The song crossed over to nearly every considerable radio platform and received the cover treatment from everyone and their labelmate, helping her 21 album become the year’s best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic in the process. But with the album out for half a year and “Deep” still the only song to really take hold stateside, the question had to be asked—was Adele going to be a one-smash wonder, her crossover chart-topper making up the entirety of her pop legacy? Adele herself certainly didn’t think so, and she was willing to bet her performance at the VMAs on it, where she could have easily brought the house down with “Deep” but instead went with a performance of the much less familiar (though similarly heart-rending) post-breakup ballad “Someone Like You.” The gamble paid off, as the well-received performance caused online sales of the song to skyrocket, resulting in the song becoming Adele’s second chart-topper on the Hot 100 last week.
It might have made more sense from a narrative perspective for “Someone Like You” to have been released before “Rolling in the Deep,” with her second 21 single seemingly taken from a more advanced stage of post-breakup grief than her first. “Someone” dwells in a stage where Adele is still holding on to her feelings for her ex, hoping that for a split second, she might be able to rekindle the spark of their relationship, but by the time of the bitter, vengeful “Rolling in the Deep,” all bridges have been burned, and though Adele still bemoans what could have been, she seems fairly damn sure that by this point, it will never actually be. Released in the opposite order, the two singles could have told a more logical story chronologically.
But then again, maybe not. Adele says that she wrote “Someone Like You” after “Deep,” as something of a reaction to the version of herself she saw in that song. “I wrote ["Someone Like You"] because I was exhausted from being such a bitch,” the singer told MTV. “I was really emotionally drained from the way I was portraying [my ex-boyfriend], because even though I’m very bitter and regret some parts of it, he’s still the most important person that’s ever been in my life.” Adele also placed “Someone Like You” as the closing track to her 21 album, implying a sort of final statement for her on her relationship’s dissolution. This is all because “Someone Like You” isn’t about the feeling immediately succeeding a breakup—it’s actually past that stage, and even well past the bitterness as well. Rather, “Someone Like You” is written from a place of near-acceptance, in which Adele has gotten over both her grief and anger about the breakup, but in one moment of weakness, can’t help but take one last stab at trying to get her ex to realize that she still loves him, and if at all possible, that he still loves her too.
I heard that you’re settled down
That you found a girl and you’re married now.
I heard that your dreams came true.
Guess she gave you things I didn’t give to you.
There have been countless Put On a Brave Face post-breakup songs in pop history, from Chicago’s “Look Away” to Robyn’s “Be Mine!,” and nearly all of them contain at least one verse like this. The verse where they either hear through the grapevine that their ex has found somebody new, or actually run into them with their new love in person, and feign happiness (and if possible, visible apathy) at their once-beloved finding happiness with another. It’s rarely genuine and always laced with a mixture of self-pity and regret—in the Chicago song,
Peter Cetera Bill Champlin insists he’s “really happy for” his ex but still asks her to perform the title action so she won’t see him crying, while in the Robyn song, she unenthusiastically claims “That’s great!” about her ex’s new relationship, but qualifies “I just miss you, that’s all.”
With the opening lines of “Someone Like You,” Adele doesn’t really bother with the fake-happiness part, probably because she knows that she’s not too emotionally transparent to put the ruse over. Instead, she just lets her ex know that she knows what’s up, and that at the very least, she’s past the point of freaking out about it—she doesn’t sound pissed off or even particularly bitter, mostly just resigned. Really, the stanza—especially the last line, where she calmly allows that hey, maybe this new girl is just better for you than I was—seems like a prelude to some sort of pitch, where she’s priming her ex for something more dramatic that she’s about to do or say by first letting him know that she’s not going to make a scene or anything. (Perhaps she realizes he’s already heard “Rolling in the Deep” a couple hundred times already.)
Old friend, why are you so shy?
Ain’t like you to hold back or hide from the light.
Here, we see why Adele felt the need for her primer—her ex-boyfriend (or as she now diplomatically refers to him, her “old friend”) seems to recoil at her appearance. With these two lines, an entire history of post-breakup turmoil is implied—enough bad blood, ugly confrontations and general drama that now when Adele’s once-beloved sees her unexpectedly, his first thought is evidently “Oh crap, what’s she going to do this time?”
I hate to turn up out of the blue uninvited
But I couldn’t stay away, I couldn’t fight it.
I had hoped you’d see my face and that you’d be reminded
That for me it isn’t over
And now we understand why he thinks that way. Not only does Adele reveal that her appearance was unannounced and most unexpected, not only does she admit that she’s showing up against her better judgment, but she admits that despite her restraint earlier in the verse, she still has those feelings that made her so crazy in the first place, and is looking for some kind of response from him. It’s a bold move for Adele, and a very emotionally brave one, but also one with a historically low success rate, and given the way her “old friend” has reacted to her showing up in the song until now, we can pretty much guess how he’s going to react to this revelation.
Never mind, I’ll find someone like you
But as quickly as Adele makes her revelation, she backpedals from it. It’s rather jarring, actually, since for the entire first verse, she seems to be prepping to make this big statement, this grandstanding play for the man that got away. However, instead of following through with it on the chorus—in some huge, tear-jerking proclamation of love and devotion, and desperate plea for some sort of reciprocation—she balks, quickly snapping out of her emotion-and-adrenaline-fueled bravery and literally deciding, well, never mind, this isn’t going to work.
What makes her pull such an incredible and unexpected about face? Does she see the reaction of her ex and instantly understand that his stance on the relationship isn’t going to change? Does she hear the sound of her own words and realize how ridiculous and impractical she’s being? Or has her bravery been inspired less by emotion than alcohol, and does she now catch herself in an unfortunately timed moment of cold sobriety? It could be any of them, and very possibly a combination of all three, but whatever the reason, Adele now knows for sure that her relationship with her “old friend” is over, and that the best she can do is to find someone else that’s similar to him.
I wish nothing but the best for you too
Don’t forget me, I beg
I’ll remember you said,
“Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead.”
When Alanis Morissette claimed at the beginning of her 1995 hit “You Oughta Know“—still the angriest, most bitter break-up song in the history of the Top 40—that she wished “nothing but the best for” her ex and his new girlfriend, you could tell pretty obviously from her pointed sneer and the sinister bass rumble in the background that she wasn’t being entirely sincere. With “Someone Like You,” though, you can buy that Adele genuinely means it—or at least that she’s deluding herself into believing she genuinely means it—as she comes to complete acceptance of the fact that she and her ex are officially done for. She’s not over the whole thing yet, and she asks that he at least remember her and what they had, but now she understands that the pain of love is all that remains from the feeling the two once shared.
It’s the turn from the verse to chorus that makes “Someone Like You” so special and affecting. There have been plenty of “I want you back” post-breakup songs in pop history, and nearly as many “I know it’s over” songs as well, but what “Someone Like You” does is to capture the very real moment in which “I want you back” turns into “I know it’s over”—when that last flicker of hope that maybe a complete reconciliation is possible dies out for good, and no amount of romantic grandstanding can bring it back. It makes sense, then, that Adele would release the song after “Rolling in the Deep,” and to put it as the last song on 21, because really, it’s the very last phase of a breakup that you can sing about. That is, of course, until you find a new guy to inspire another album’s worth of love songs.
With the success of “Someone Like You,” Adele has officially shed any possible one-hit wonder tag, and has cemented her status as the reigning Queen of Heartbreak in pop music, unlikely to abdicate the throne anytime soon. What will be interesting to see now is if after two definitive post-breakup songs—albeit ones about entirely distinct parts of the experience—the public will ever be able to accept Adele singing about any other subject. Like Katherine Heigl, who followed her breakout success on TV drama Grey’s Anatomy with a like role in the hit movie Knocked Up, but now risks being cast as the same kind of tightly-wound, careerist fusspot she played in both those roles for the rest of her career, Adele is now in danger of being similarly pigeonholed. Let’s hope that her next single takes her a slightly different direction—we’d hate for the public to have their hearts closed to Adele if, lord forbid, she ever wrote a song about being in a happy, healthy relationship.