Adele is one of those things that I should like more than I actually do. See, she’s got the chops. Just not the material. So, pairing her with Rick Rubin seemed like a canny idea. I’m still trying to find her Johnny Cash moment, though.
“Rolling in the Deep,” the opener and lead single, had me going at first. Adele’s sultry croak is matched with a moonshine-swilling country-blues stomp, and she positively glows in this new light. But then, the song makes a mid-course correction into a same-ole too-smooth R&B vocal showcase.
I fell for the same trick on “Don’t You Remember,” one of four tracks from 21 produced by Rubin. The hollow desolation of its opening moments, stark and revealing, is suddenly swallowed whole by an MOR ballad. Same with “He Won’t Go.”
When the album isn’t disappointing with these sharp turns into measured mediocrity, 21 is driving headlong into it. “Rumour Has It” could be Leona Lewis, or Duffy, or any of a number of other faceless of-the-moment belters. “I’ll Be Waiting” aspires to Stax Records-style greasy grooves, but instead sounds like a naked attempt at capturing American chart success. Adele’s all but lost in the billowing overproduction of “Set Fire to the Rain.”
That makes her delicately wrought reading of the Cure’s “Lovesong,” given a nifty bossa nova makeover here, all the more overwhelming. Adele — real name: Adele Laurie Blue Adkins — has a honey-smoke tone with cracks that reach out like tree branches in winter. Given the proper context, she can imbue a song with this striking complexity.
Not set for release in the U.S. until Feb. 21, but already atop the charts in her native Britain, 21 could have been a game changer for the big-voiced Adele. Instead, it’s just another weigh station for a gifted young singer still searching for the right set of songs.