The follow-up to Adele’s critically-acclaimed 19 bears similar scars to its predecessor, emerging as a bluesy, lovelorn ode to a beloved gone wrong. With two years more experience on 19, though, 21 finds Adele Adkins backed by an army of well-known producers and collaborators, including Rick Rubin and Ryan Tedder, and exploring different sonic territories than her debut. The songs here are irrevocably soulful, new versions of “I Will Survive” or “You Oughta Know” for the 21st century girl obsessed with the boy that won’t love her back. But there are never any lapses of cheesiness or the glossy immaturity characteristic of so many artists Adele’s age; she’s got a huge, booming voice that carries far beyond her 21 years, and the lyrics are is rich and mature.
Opener “Rolling In The Deep” is so instantly catchy with its slow-burning strums of guitar and ominous drumming, but it’s when Adele’s voice explodes on the chorus that everything comes together: “The scars of your love, they leave me breathless” she sings, the backing vocals countering “You’re gonna wish you had never met me.” This is awesome stuff – not just girl power, but the lines anyone jilted by someone they’ve cared about would love to say. With the subtle fury of the instrumentation, this is an opener that portends an excellent album.
Adele keeps the tempo going on the stomping, seething “Rumor Has It,” while “Turning Tables” (another track assisted by Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic fame) is a bare-bones piano and strings ballad laden down with sorrow. For all the gorgeousness of the more heart-wrenching tracks on 21, I’m still more partial to the sassy, pumped-up, countrified stuff. Adele is a master, of course, at yanking the coarse beauty out of even the worst heartbreak, but it’s when she takes charge of her own sadness that she sounds so triumphant.
Undoubtedly the best aspect of 21 is the sheer realness of it all. A whole suite of A-list producers can’t take the honesty out of Adele, who explores every emotion of the heart on this collection of songs. Even when she’s begging for her lover back on “I’ll Be Waiting For You” (“I’ll do everything different / I’ll be better to you / I’ll be waiting for you when you’re ready to love me again”), you can’t help but be on her side as the harmonies envelop you in warmth and Adele’s voice just soars. There’s no sheen here covering over the imperfectness of what she’s feeling as she sings these songs or puts them to paper; whether it’s jealousy, rage, or utter abjectness, you’ll find anything you’d find in your own diary on this disc.
Best of all, this disc does justice to The Cure’s “Lovesong” as the penultimate cut, turning it into a chill, bossa nova rendition that’s less blatantly sentimental than the original. It all leads well into the intense final song, “Someone Like You,” which finds the songstress stalking a former flame, now married. And yet, with the slow purr of her voice, you can’t help but cheer for her to get what she wants after everything. Plus, the lyrics are just killer, going right for the heartstrings: “Don't forget me, I beg, I remembered you say, ‘Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead’.”
Overall, this is a solid album, sonically lovely, from a wonderfully mature artist. I think it could be better served with some tightening so there’s never that feeling of predictability that can come with too many slow songs. But there’s undeniably enough meat, not to mention personality and talent, on 21 to ensure Adele an illustrious career. Sometimes all that heartbreak can turn into a multi-platinum music career.