Adele – 21 (2011)

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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.

At the very end, well past when many would have grown weary of waiting, Adele reaches that potential again with “Someone Like You.” Positioned beside a trembling piano figure, she tries to sort through the jumble of emotions surrounding a lover who has moved on and found happiness. Every word holds its own history, its own sense of bittersweet reverie. Lonesome and shattering, it’s a triumph too long in the making.

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.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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  • Sara

    Adele’s 19 was strong. 21 is simply timeless. In the past two years, Adele has refined and reinvented her unique sound that always puts her aching yet powerful vocals and lyrics at the forefront. These are songs that could have been released in the 60s as easily as 30 years from now. Adele has injected her trademark piano ballads with the best from several different musical genres including Americana roots and country, r&b, blues and gospel. The music is exciting and simply is. It lives, breathes. I played a couple songs for my mom, who at forty years older than I, generally criticizes my music taste, and the first thing she said was “Wow, this girl really knows how to write a story–those songs are beautiful.”