The Ones of the ’10s: Adele’s “Set Fire To The Rain”

In The Ones of the ’10s, I’m reviewing every single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s and working my way up into the present.

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Adele- “Set Fire To The Rain”

HIT #1: February 4, 2012

STAYED AT #1: 2 weeks

How do you follow up a year of success like the one Adele had in 2011? Over the course of that year, Adele transformed from a little known British soul singer to the biggest name in all of music. Her 21 album spun off two massive #1s, “Rolling In The Deep” and “Someone Like You,” both well-crafted and well-performed pop masterpieces. 21 was also a huge success selling in numbers that were becoming increasingly rare in the 21st Century becoming a saving grace to the music industry. Nobody was challenging Adele’s sales numbers. In 2011 alone, 21 sold about 5.8 million copies becoming the best-selling album that year. By comparison, the year’s second best-selling album, Michael Buble’s Christmas, sold about 2.4 million copies. 

All of this success is weird to think about when you consider that Adele doesn’t play the pop stardom game as most others do. She doesn’t dance, do any elaborate music videos, collaborate with other artists, pop up in between album cycles, or even perform big spectacles at her shows. She just stands on stage and sings to the crowd. Adele created a model of stardom that belonged completely to her. Only she could get away with this.

At the beginning of 2012, Adele was once again riding high. Adele had swept the Grammy Awards winning Album of the Year for 21 as well as Song and Record of the Year for “Rolling In The Deep.” 21 even enjoyed a renewed popularity on the charts as the album returned to #1 on Billboard’s album charts in January 2012 and stayed there for another 11 non-consecutive weeks. 21 still managed to sell in big numbers that it also wound up as the best-selling album of 2012, the fourth album in history to be the best-seller in two different years. 

Right as this activity was happening, “Set Fire To The Rain” reached #1, Adele’s third and final single from 21 to reach the top spot. The song stands in stark contrast to Adele’s previous two #1 hits. It’s a mid-tempo calm down about Adele’s failed relationship that hasn’t exactly lingered in the public consciousness in the same ways “Rolling In The Deep” and “Someone Like You” has but it’s still a great song nonetheless. 

“Set Fire To The Rain” was written by Adele and Fraser T Smith, the British songwriter and producer who had co-written and produced Taio Cruz’s #1 hit “Break Your Heart” two years earlier. When discussing the song, Adele described it as being about the contradictions that occur in a relationship, “One person says this, the other person says that. I was really, really heartbroken when I met who the song’s about, and he kind of brought me back to life, and put me back together and he was a dickhead as well.” Adele later mentioned she got the title one day when trying to light a cigarette in the rain outside a restaurant. 

“Set Fire To The Rain” goes like this: Adele once felt helpless but found a boyfriend who saved her. Her boyfriend gives her all these promises and falls for it but eventually sees his bullshit. With her heartbroken, Adele tries to save the relationship but realizes it wasn’t meant to be. The title acts as a metaphor to Adele burning her relationship even though she still wishes it could have worked out. A symbol of liberation from a broken relationship. 

Once again, Adele gives off another great vocal performance but it isn’t as impactful as her other songs. The song radiates this breeziness to me that can make you not pay close attention to the lyrics. You could listen to “Set Fire To The Rain” many times and not think a lot about the heartbreak Adele is singing about. The mid-tempo feel gives off a bit of a disconnect between the lyrics and the delivery. You compare it to Adele’s other songs where her voice is more up front making her presence known and going all out giving more attention to the lyrics. I certainly know the song’s about some serious shit but even for me, it can fade into the background at moments.

All of the major Adele elements are here: the classy soulful production, Adele singing her heart out, the soaring chorus. Some of the musical details here I like: the beautiful piano flourishes, buried hints of electric guitar, the sweeping strings on the chorus, and the galloping drum rhythm programmed through a tom-tom drum loop by Smith. But it all feels understated compared to the searing rage of “Rolling In The Deep” and the wistful reflection of “Someone Like You.” It doesn’t hit as hard. Considering the song’s placement in the middle of 21, I can imagine “Set Fire To The Rain” acting as a mid-album lull. A chance to give listeners a breather from the heart-wrenching drama displayed on much of the album. So “Set Fire To The Rain” is minor Adele. But even minor Adele still sounds great. 

You’ll notice that there’s no official music video for “Set Fire To The Rain.” This is due to Adele recovering from vocal surgery in late 2011 meaning she couldn’t shoot any music videos. Instead, a live performance of “Set Fire To The Rain” from Adele’s September 2011 concert at England’s Royal Albert Hall was posted. The same concert was also released as its own concert DVD. In a way, this was a smart move. At the moment when Adele couldn’t perform, people could satisfy themselves with their own private Adele show. Watching the video, you can see just how dynamic a performer Adele is being able to bring her songs to life on stage with a good band backing her. A proper music video didn’t have to be made.

“Set Fire To The Rain” may have been the last #1 off of 21 but the album was able to spin off one more major charting hit, the bluesy kiss-off “Rumour Has It,” which peaked at #16 later in 2012. 21’s last single “Turning Tables” was a chart dud only peaking at #63. Considering how massive 21 was, I’m surprised there weren’t more hits. 

Adele wasn’t done yet in 2012. She would have one more chart impact late in the year with “Skyfall,” the title theme to the James Bond film. The song won Adele a Golden Globe and an Oscar and became another Top 10 hit peaking at #8. (It’s an 8.)

After that, Adele took a long break from recording as she welcomed a newborn son and largely kept out of the spotlight. Had Adele stopped making music after 21, she still would have made her mark and be widely remembered. But Adele would eventually come back in a big way continuing to show just how much of a force she is. She’ll be back in this column again.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Set Fire To The Rain” soundtracking a promo for the 2011 series finale of FX’s Rescue Me, before the song was even a hit:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jordan Smith and Josh Kaufman singing “Set Fire To The Rain” on a 2015 episode of The Voice: