Absent flashy special effects and elaborate set pieces, the clip, literally, has the British singer sitting in a chair and belting the soul-stirring tune as scenes of elegant destruction take place around her. The low-key approach was more than enough to help make 21 the year's best-selling album to date and garner Adele a whopping seven nominations at Sunday's VMAs.
Acclaimed VMA-winning director Sam Brown (Jay-Z's "On to the Next One," Corinne Bailey Rae's "Put Your Records On") said he created the visually stunning clip in collaboration with the singer, who was a fan of the Jigga video and sought him out.
"The idea was really about finding different ways of expressing the anger in the words," Brown said, "and then housing them in this one giant building. I suppose I was thinking about the house as her mind and then the rooms as everything happening inside it."
Since its release in late November, the understated video has been viewed more than 100 million times online and has earned Adele nods for Video of the Year, Best Female Video, Best Pop Video, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Direction and Best Editing.
Set in an ornate mansion that appears to be undergoing some renovation — with huge plastic sheets draped over parts of the walls and furniture — the video opens with Adele seated and crooning the heartbreak ballad intercut with shots of thousands of glasses covering the floor of an upstairs landing. As the drums kick in, the water in the glasses begins to vibrate and we get the first shot of an enigmatic dancer in a harshly lit ballroom in which the floor is covered with a fine white powder and the walls obscured by thick black plastic sheeting.
Brown said the shoot took place in an abandoned mansion on the outskirts of London over the course of one day and that the plastic sheeting was meant to shield the singer from the chaos around her. "I was thinking about how environments are protected from damage, so I pictured her in a room that was protected from her anger, the kind of space where something bad might happen," he explained.
Wielding a long cane, the Kabuki-like dancer turns in increasingly intense circles, stirring up dust as the song's tempo kicks up another notch, spinning and kicking up the white powder, which envelops her in a haze. In a video that aims for simple, often starkly iconic images over a barrage of colorful explosions, the next cue is another subtle gem.
As the dancer disappears in the fog, we see a giant pile of broken dishes, with an unseen hand tossing them against a screen hung at the bottom of the steps. The crockery flies, explodes into a million pieces and falls onto the heap as Adele sings, "The scars of your love remind me of us/ They keep me thinking that we almost had it all."
Brown said he'd always pictured Adele seated in the video, because he thought that was more empowering and would allow the viewer to focus on the emotion in her delivery. "It took a lot of persuasion because Adele is someone who moves beautifully," he noted. "Generally, the videos I make are all about reduction, about taking out everything I don't need, and having her dance or move felt unnecessary to what we were trying to say ... Adele showed me a lot of images up front ... and we talked at length about the look and feel of it all. She wanted it to be dark and angry and mysterious."
As the song steams toward its climax, the tempo picks up and Brown cuts between the dancer — who improvised all her moves on the spot — a drummer pounding out the song's beat with his back to the camera, the glasses of water, the smashed dishes and a new image: a scaled cityscape made of white paper sitting on a large dining room table. It doesn't last long, as sparks begin to fall from above, setting the city ablaze.
"To be honest, I tend to respond to tracks quite quickly and without rationalizing too much," Brown admitted. "If I'm pushed, I guess the imagery in the video is all about expressing the obsessive nature of jealousy and resentment, hence all the fanatical repetition of objects, the glasses of water, etc. I was also wanting to take well-trodden clichés from films and videos and amplify them to a crazy extreme, like the smashing crockery. The paper city expresses the end of a relationship, something beautiful and complex and delicately constructed that is very quickly razed to the ground."
And though voting is closed for Adele's categories, fans can still vote for Best New Artist by visiting VMA.MTV.com online or m.mtv.com on their mobile phones. In addition, Best New Artist text voting is open to all wireless carrier subscribers by texting BNA to 66333. Voting continues all the way through the show, until the winner is announced live on Sunday.
The 28th annual MTV Video Music Awards will air live Sunday, August 28, from the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles at 9 p.m. ET/PT, following the Selena Gomez-hosted pre-show at 8. See the list of nominees, revisit last year's highlights and vote for Best New Artist by visiting VMA.MTV.com.