Fans of Adele knew from her debut album, “19,” that the two-time Grammy winner has pipes that belie her young years. On “21,” out Feb. 22, she digs deeper as her lyrics start to match the emotional heft of her full-throated, wondrous voice.
“21” mines the depths of one relationship from its start to finish. Too often, the path is laden with land mines that are impossible to see until you’re smack dab on top of them and you’re trapped, unable to move in any direction. Like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief, Adele seems able to run through all the stages of a torrid love affair from exhilaration to devastation.
The album opens with regret and recriminations on first single “Rollin’ in The Deep,” Adele’s voice swooping and swelling with emotion, till she builds to a fevered wail on “We could have had it all.”
On the finger-poppin’ “Rumor Has It,” the big kick drum and girl group-backing vocals anchor her spunky delivery as she takes to task her boyfriend stepping out with someone “half his age.” It’s one of two songs OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, who’s also crafted songs for Kelly Clarkson and Beyonce, co-wrote with Adele. Tedder also co-produced “Rumor,” while he left the production work for their other co-write, the piano/string ballad “Turning Tables” to Jim Abbiss. Her feistiness has deserted her and she’s left only with the shutting down, after making herself vulnerable.
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"21's" centerpiece is the breathtaking, searing, country-tinged “Don’t You Remember” (it even features Los Lobos‘ David Hildalgo on banjo). She admits to “a fickle heart, a bitterness, a wondering eye and a heaviness in her head,” but begs her ex-lover, who’s moved on, to remember what they had together and, even for just a minute, miss it as much as she does. Her voice wrenches every bit of pain out of the song, stopping just short of making it overwrought. She co-wrote the tune (along with British chart-topper, second single, “Someone Like You”) with Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, who’s put his own career on the backburner to write for others, including The Dixie Chicks. He seems to have a knack for writing tunes for strong-willed and hugely talented females like Adele and Chicks’ Natalie Maines.
It’s one of four songs here produced by Rick Rubin, who has seemingly brought out a sense of confidence in her without sacrificing any of her vulnerability and raw ability. But most of the credit has to go to the now 22-year old Adele, who took herself to school to learn how to improve her song craft by locking herself in her apartment after she got off tour and studying how to write songs. It seems like she’s especially worked on her bridges: Both “Rumor Has It” and ‘She Won’t Go” take tempo turns midway through that add a nice depth to the songs, but she really nails it on the stormy “One and Only,” that goes from a turgid ballad to a hypnotic, sing-along round before returning to its original form.
In interviews, she’s talked about how her Nashville-based bus driver introduced her to country music during long drives on her last U.S. tour. She learned about, and grew to love, artists as diverse as Lady Antebellum, Wanda Jackson and Garth Brooks. But aside from “Don’t You Remember,” the artist the she seems to reference most here is Dusty Springfield from her “Dusty in Memphis” period on such tracks as the horn-laden, soulful “I’ll Be Waiting.” It’s a strong song despite her truly misfortunate use of the word “anyhoo” as a rhyming device.
Just as she covered Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love,” on her debut, Adele takes on The Cure’s “Lovesong” here. Her mom, who had Adele as a teenager, loves the Cure and took Adele to see the band when Adele was three. It’s a sweet cover for that reason, and Adele adds a fun little bossa nova twist to the end, but it adds nothing to the album.
Sometimes when an artist employs different producers, the album sounds like it was patched together like a jigsaw puzzle with different pieces have little relation to the others, but “21” goes the other way. Even though there are six producers credited on the set (all but Rubin also co-wrote with her), this is a solid, cohesive effort. If anything, a few of the songs sound a little too familiar. But that’s a small complaint on an album that has so many winners. Not everything soars here, but the ones that do more than make up for the few weaker tunes.
We'll go ahead and say it: we’re looking at 2011’s first album of the year contender.