SONG MEANING: “River Lea” may sound like it’s about a relationship at times, but Adele’s energetic ballad is actually about coming to terms with who you are and how where you’ve come from does or doesn’t effect that person.
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I have to say: I REALLY like “River Lea.” Speaking as an English scholar, for it’s beautiful pulsing sound, it’s depth of lyrics, and it’s use of such extensive imagery, “River Lea” has to be my favorite song from Adele’s new album so far. It’s rich in beautiful ideas poetically put, and I really enjoyed studying and listening to it.
As for the River Lea itself, it’s an actual river, one that’s very close to Tottenham, Adele’s hometown. If you’re interested in seeing what it looks like, the following jogging guide video has some footage of it. It starts at about 1:12 and goes on for a little. (The video’s also fun because of the narrator’s great British accent.)
I’ve added “River Lea” and several other recent hits to my Spotify playlist “Clifford Stumme’s Pop Prerogative.” Feel free to follow the playlist! (If the song’s not yet there, I’m waiting for it to release on Spotify. Thanks for your patience!)
Explaining “River Lea” by Adele
In an interview with NPR, Adele explains that the real River Lea is mostly disgusting: “My experience of it was, whenever I was in our version of the projects, the river ran through it — so it ran through all my aunties’ houses, stuff like that . . . But the idea of the song is that, especially since I’ve become a parent, let alone writing this record, I’m dealing with myself for the first time. And I have a lot of bad habits. And rather than admitting that I have bad traits in my actual character, I blame it on where I’m from.”
In “River Lea,” the River Lea represents Adele’s tendency to blame her mistakes on where she’s come from or the effect that her early life had on her. I think most people can empathize with this; we’re all prone to blame our parents, our hometowns, or our friends for our bad habits, tendencies, inability to trust, or things like those.
At times I’ve given my mother a difficult time for not teaching me this or that bit of information when she homeschooled me; I like to think that I’d be even further ahead now if she’d hit everything I think she should of. But that’s just not the case (she did a GREAT job), and there’s still plenty of time for me to learn those things or for Adele to drop bad habits if we want to change or be different. And that struggle between past-caused apathy and present-based determination to move on is what “River Lea” is about.
In Verse 1, Adele sings to a man: “Everybody tells me that it’s ’bout time that I moved on / And I need to learn to lighten up and learn how to be young.” After becoming a mother, Adele’s been inspired to think about the past and to discover who she is and where she’s come from. She’s been excessively thoughtful, and others think she needs to live in the present.
But she knows the truth that her “heart is a valley, it’s so shallow and man made.” She “scared to death if I let you in that you’ll see that I’m just a fake.” She knows who she is and what her problems are (coming up soon!), and she’s afraid to let anyone near her for fear she’ll be revealed for the fake she feels she is.
She sings, “Sometimes I feel lonely in the arms of your touch / But I know that’s just me ’cause nothing ever is enough.” Currently, Adele seems to be singing to a romantic partner, but I tend to think he’s more a metaphor for the world around Adele. In “River Lea,” she’s afraid of how she’ll do in the relationship with him, but in the real world, she’s afraid of the entire world.
She continues in the first verse to sing, “When I was a child I grew up by the River Lea / There was something in the water, now that something’s in me.” Like Adele said in the interview with NPR, this song is about blaming your problems on where you came from, and these two lines are Adele doing that blaming. In the next two lines she begins to fight it: “Oh, I can’t go back, but the reeds are growing out of my fingertips / I can’t go back to the river.”
In the Pre-chorus, Adele wants to blame her bad habits on her past: “But it’s in my roots, in my veins / It’s in my blood and I stain every heart that I use to heal the pain.” She feels like her “River Lea-ness” is buried deep inside of her and explains that she uses other people to “heal the pain,” which turns out poorly. I think this is Adele explaining that her bad habits are relational or even romantic and that each “heart” is a new lover she tries to refresh her self-image with. Unfortunately, using “heart[s]” turns out poorly for those people and leaves Adele still hurting.
In the Chorus, Adele takes the easy way out (and knows that she’s doing so) by blaming “it on the River Lea, the River Lea, the River Lea.” She blames her failures of today on her influences of the past.
In the last fully unique stanza of “River Lea,” Adele sings to her metaphor person: “I should probably tell you now before it’s way too late / That I never meant to hurt you or lie straight to your face.” At the beginning of the relationship, she wants to do well but knows she’ll revert to her bad habits.
She sings, “Consider this my apology, I know it’s years in advance / But I’d rather say it now in case I never get the chance.” She knows this relationship will hit hard times because of her, and she wants to have already apologized for when that time comes. She’s preparing herself and the other person for her eventual mistakes.
Summary and Thoughts
I think “River Lea” is a beautiful song, and I love the music. (A tidbit from a Rolling Stone interview with Adele: The piano sounds are actually Adele’s voice playing on a keyboard.)
I especially appreciate the self-reflection that I felt I personally could connect to. While “River Lea” seems to be principally about relationships in the verses, I think the bigger issue it touches on are those bad habits from the past that keep us from taking responsibility or joy in the present or hope in the future.
I want to take this song to heart, and I hope that you do to. Thanks, Adele!
Clifford Stumme has his master’s in English literature and is a blogger and a college instructor/desk-watcher at Liberty University. He likes juggling and reading/writing, and he is married to the wonderful and beautiful Wife April. He thinks pop music is awesome. Seriously awesome.