PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Music

Adele: 21

Jer Fairall

The shining light of the current generation of young British female singers hires a bank of producers and co-writers to help out with her sophomore release, and gets predictably uneven results.


Adele

21

Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 2011-02-22
UK Release Date: 2011-01-24
Amazon
iTunes

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.

5

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Music

Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.

Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.