At twenty-seven years old, Adele is the most popular living soul singer in the world. When she performs before a crowd, she eschews all the historical trademarks of the style-she rarely improvises; she assumes a stern, nearly pious posture behind the microphone; she doesn't indulge in frisky, call-and-response high jinks with her band-but soul is inherent in her voice, some kind of heady, insatiable wanting.
All postcolonial American music is a mishmash of sorts. Soul, an amalgamation of black gospel and rhythm and blues, first found its way onto the pop charts in the nineteen-fifties, and reached a kind of apogee in the early sixties. (For me, the release, in 1964, of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” still feels like a man cresting a mountain.) Soul eventually begat dozens of splinter groups, including blue-eyed soul (Hall and Oates, Michael McDonald), and, more curiously, northern soul, a genre based not in a creative impulse but in a curatorial one. In the late sixties, night clubs in northern England began hosting dance parties where enterprising disc jockeys spun obscure, fast-tempo soul records—limited-run, picayune forty-five-r.p.m. singles issued by regional labels like Golden World, Ric-Tic, Magic City, and Shout. If all indigenous American music was seeded, in part, by the Celtic ballads and hymns brought to Appalachia via broadsides in the eighteenth century—which melded with the West African spirituals and work songs sung by slaves—then northern soul could, like the second wave of rock and roll, be understood as a funny kind of return, now transmuted and many centuries removed.