Week 395: “Fool That I Am” by Etta James (Adele cover)

Sometimes, the attribute that makes a thing beautiful can be the same attribute that makes it vulnerable.

Consider Niagara Falls as an example. A big part of its appeal is its power. The roar that can be heard long before the falls themselves come into view. The power it has to hold your attention as your eyes track the water from top to bottom. Even the literal power it holds in terms of hydro-electric production.

But that same power will eventually erode Niagara’s limestone to the point where it will no longer exist. The rate of erosion is currently something like one foot per year, and in a few more millennia, the Niagara River will make its way from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario by way of a far less inspiring gradual slope.

This past summer, Adele might have felt a bit like Niagara Falls. She was suffering from a vocal hemorrhage (her second in six years) and had to cancel two massive shows at Wembley Stadium.

Vocal hemorrhages have been affecting some of music’s biggest voices for about as long as erosion has been altering landscapes. Cher, Sam Smith, Bono, Lionel Richie, Celine Dion- all have sought surgical help. Such surgeries have worked (as they did in Adele’s case in 2011) but not all experts are convinced that they are a permanent fix. And they’re not always successful; Julie Andrew’s voice was left irreparably damaged after a failed surgery in 1997.

Maybe powerful voices, like waterfalls, are beautiful not only for their power but also for their impermanence. I’m certainly not hoping that Adele’s voice doesn’t recover. But knowing that her voice, such an unstoppable force, could be the only thing capable of stopping itself, does add a level of tragic romance to her work.

This recording, from an in-studio performance at a radio station in Los Angeles, is from 2008. Barely out of her teens, she hadn’t yet conquered the music world, filled Wembley Stadium, recorded a James Bond title track, or suffered a vocal hemorrhage.

The radio hosts probably felt the same way most people feel when first seeing Niagara Falls.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Her voice is just as much at home alongside an acoustic guitar as it is filling a sold-out arena.

2. Her dynamic range is incredible. She often goes from delicate drop of rain to waterfall and back again, all in one melodic line.

3. The lyrics. An Etta James classic, it’s essentially about the power love has to make you lose your senses, before hollowing you out and returning you to your senses with a painful jolt. Emotional erosion.

Recommended listening activity:

Watching an ice cube disappear in a glass of water.

Buy it here.