Among the diverse crop of 21st century female pop stars, perhaps none feels more purely and simply worth rooting for than Adele. A precociously talented young woman with a big voice but a refreshingly non-showy way of putting it on display and a songwriter with a firm sense of classic pop composition, Adele’s 2008 debut 19 (the title a reference to her age at the time of writing the album) broke through on the strength of such likeable and solidly crafted singles as “Chasing Pavements” and “Cold Shoulder”. Though not especially indebted to any genre or era in particular, these song’s mildly soulful inflections got Adele slotted alongside the much more outwardly retro likes of Amy Winehouse and Duffy in a rush to identify a thriving new British soul movement—one that probably owes much of its initial commercial investment to the success, earlier in the decade, of such tastefully “adult” young artists like Joss Stone, Norah Jones and Alicia Keys, who filled the chasm left by the Britney era’s alienation of grown-up listeners.
Those listeners who dug deeper into 19, however, knew better than to pigeonhole Adele so narrowly. Songs like the gentle folk sketch “Daydreamer” and the stately piano ballad “Hometown Glory” revealed the teenager as an astonishingly detailed and attentive lyricist and musician, just as her wisely chosen cover of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love”, itself precisely the kind of song that the average television singing contest hopeful would reliably maul into a grotesque display of nuance-free over-emoting, provided her rich voice with a setting that she knowingly met with the appropriate balance of passion and restraint. If the cumulative effect of 19 could not help but feel a bit too safe in its refinement, as if Adele and her producers were possibly sanding off a few too many potentially rough edges in their attempt to prove the distance between her age and her maturity, it was a production that nevertheless had the good sense to place Adele front and center most of the time.
This notion, that Adele is both a dynamic and self-sufficient enough personality that the best course of action is to simply stay out of her way, is a lesson no one appears to have learned on sophomore release 21. Its title implying both a natural extension and a maturation of her debut, 21 instead feels simultaneously overcooked and nervously unsure of itself, piling one ostentatious production on top of another as if suddenly hesitant over whether Adele’s talent is now enough to carry the day given her increased profile. The credits are the clearest giveaway: 19, particularly given the involvement of superstar Mark Ronson as one of three producers, was hardly a bedroom recording, but with very few exceptions the songwriting credits belonged to Adele alone. 21, by contrast, presents a smorgasbord of professionals not only as producers but as co-writers, with contributions from OneRepublic hack Ryan Tedder, in-demand Britpop fave Paul Epworth, Taio Cruz collaborator Frasier T. Smith, former Semicsonic front man Dan Wilson, returning 19 co-producer Jim Abbiss and, to top it all off, Rick Rubin.
The very fact that Rubin, whom one imagines cannot come easily or inexpensively, is not in charge here but rather on board as simply one more accessory should be all of the proof one needs as to the bloated, no-expense-spared nature of the enterprise. Given that vast majority of 21 plays like several people’s ideas of what Adele should sound like, it should come as no surprise that a fair number of these collaborations end up goading her in various retro directions. Occasionally, these pastiches come off as novel enough, and Adele’s convictions strong enough, to sell the experiment, such as on the booming John Barry homage “Rumour Has It”. More often though, she is saddled with ersatz arrangements like the Vegas lounge trappings that stifle the potentially compelling addiction drama “He Won’t Go” (“will he go back to the place where he will choose the poison over me?” she sings in one of too few passages here that remind what a strong lyricist she can be) or the needless backing choirs that add questionable gospel flavor to the torchy “One and Only” and the uncannily “Piece of My Heart”-ish “Take It All”.
If the general unevenness of 21 is the inevitable result of too many collaborators and not enough cohesive vision, one of the few contributors here whose work suggests a direction that the whole album could have gone in is Paul Epworth. His two production/co-writing credits are among the album’s more successful, starting with the sturdy first single “Rolling in the Deep”, whose crisp, spacious accompaniment is full-bodied enough to make for an effective mainstream pop production yet just unobtrusive enough that Adele is never dwarfed by anything too ornate. “I’ll Be Waiting” is similarly balanced, despite a perfunctory-sounding horn section, Adele’s voice gliding expertly along a slick, Elton John-like piano jaunt.
Such minor successes, though, are offset by the inclusion of duds like Frasier T. Smith’s (thankfully, it would seem) lone contribution, the melodramatic, string-drenched “Set Fire to the Rain”, a song every bit as overblown as its title suggests. Even if Ryan Tedder’s presence does not add up to quite the disaster one would expect (aside from helming the highly uncharacteristic “Rumour Has It”, his work here is mostly limited to a co-write of the melodically lush, if somewhat overstated “Turning Tables), the album still comes off as far more forced and calculated than it should, particularly given that a large part of Adele’s appeal is her much-touted natural talent. As for Rick Rubin, his presence here is barely noticed, and if he can be credited for keeping the pretty, emotive “Don’t You Remember” generally understated, he should have known much better than to have anything to do with the album’s bloodless easy-listening cover of The Cure’s “Lovesong”.
If 21 feels, on the whole, like an object lesson in how to indulge in easily avoided mistakes, the most trenchant criticism of the album comes not from anything that will end up being written about it, but rather from its final song. “Someone Like You”, though helped along by Dan Wilson, is just Adele’s voice and piano, and it is absolute magic. Though it is unquestionably her finest vocal showcase to date, it is less remarkable for its more powerful moments than for the small ones where her voice dips, with rueful melancholy on the line “I heard that your dreams came true” or cracks on the “I beg” in the chorus, like she’s startled at the revelation of her own vulnerability. Lyrically, too, she has never been more vivid. The song’s subject—Adele mentally addressing an old lover who has since found happiness elsewhere—is familiar, but the detail she colors it with are vibrantly tactile and resonant, from the sense-memory setting of “we were born and raised in a summer haze” to her recollection of his cruel kiss-off line “I remember you said, ‘sometimes it lasts in love and sometimes it hurts instead’” and how she comes to take solace in the statement as an empowering mantra. It’s a stunning performance of a song finally worthy of her talents, immediately rendering the hedge-betting skepticism of the rest of 21, even its stronger moments, hopelessly weak and irrelevant by comparison and hopefully pointing the way towards an even brighter future for its creator.