The emotion Adele summons in “Someone Like You,” amplified further by her Brit Awards performance, should reassure faithful and discerning listeners that her reign as 2009 Best New Artist, floating regally above dispassionate Top 40 artists, isn’t over.
By Michela Smith
Adele puzzles me.
A recipient of two 2009 Grammy’s (and three additional nominations) at age 20 for her debut album, 19, Adele blew away the meager wheezes of Katy Perry, Pink, and Leona Lewis, filling the halls of the music industry with her resonate voice. Critics hailed Adele as refreshingly different, a nostalgic return to the soul and style of Carnaby St.—far preferable to dreary Top 40.
I tuned into the 2011 Brit Awards in February to hear a sample from her sophomore album 21, and her stunning performance of “Someone Like You” left both the home audience and Adele herself in tears after her broken heart determinately fought for a second chance. Yet, upon hearing all of 21, my heart began to break as well, but not because of Adele’s talent for expressing emotion. Far too many of the songs—in fact, half of the album’s tracks—sound like Katy Perry and Pink and Leona Lewis.
Adele puzzles me.
But to begin positively . . . 21’s strongest pieces are those that ironically stray from her award-winning formula of intense heartbreak.
21 opens with its unquestionably best tune: “Rolling in the Deep.” Breaking Adele’s silence since 19, a quick-moving, heavily-thumbed guitar line begins, setting metronome-like time for the piece. Adding contrast, the swirls of Adele’s voice enter and swim through the auditory space. The song soon layers, adding bass drum, piano, lead guitar, and Supremes-like backing vocals that paint Adele’s frustration with an ex-lover she plans to overwhelm in a rage of revenge. Cultured Adele reveals her classical training too, including quintessential blues allusions like “roll your stone” and “reap just what you sow.” This evocation of Mississippi Delta ghosts, combined with Adele’s smooth vocals, which ooze venom, render the track sumptuously addictive.
The same percussive momentum continues into the song “Rumour Has It,” a track set to the time of a throbbing floor tom-tom mixed with cool, snappy “ooh’s,” reminiscent of the 1960s. Here Adele draws on an even darker side, shamelessly trying to draw her flame from his oh-so-proper lover. Adele and her accompanying piano are seductively vindictive, reminding her beau not only of her superior lovemaking, but also how she’s “cold to the core,” inviting both her lover and the audience to join her in sinful indulgence.
It is at this point that the album begins its decline. “Turning Tables” is a melodramatic declaration in which Adele promises to leave behind a lover who continues to trifle with her affections. While the subject matter itself is moving, Adele’s treatment is not. The piano and strings weep slowly, weighed down with rote sentimentality. The lyrics aren’t particularly innovative either. Lines like “Under your thumb, I can’t breathe” are not only derivative, but their routine sentiments undercut the emotion Adele hopes to evoke.
“Turning Tables” sounds remarkably close to “The X-Factor” product Leona Lewis’s “Run.” Unfortunately, the echoes of Top 40 on 21 grow. “He Won’t Go” trudges along in monotony to a J-Lo-like pop beat. “Take It All” fuses Christina Aguilera and Alicia Keyes with a solo piano occasionally accompanied by a gospel voices that chime in with unimaginative lyrics like “How can you walk away from all my tears?” “Lovesong” melts into a boss nova that could appear as any Aguilera or Shakira B-Side and is only slightly redeemed by the hint of an organ in the background, an instrument rarely featured in Top 40. “Set Fire to the Rain” combines all of these mainstream influences, coming off as the most generic pop song on the album.
Tell me Adele: Whhhyyy? Critics hailed you for your originality, someone to move us away from repetitive Top 40! I didn’t think seeing all those pop stars at Staples Center in 2009 would so intimidate you . . . Adele—you puzzle me!
Yet all the disappointment shrinks in the shadow of the album’s closer, “Someone Like You.” Accompanied by only a piano, Adele’s lung power works wonders on this track, finding all the anguish she left out of the earlier monotonous tracks and then purging herself of all the sadness. While the track acknowledges that her past love has happily moved onto another, she literally begs him not to forget her, an agonizing appeal. Despite her sonic range on this track, Adele’s vocals are intimate, enveloping the listener in a sweet misery.
The emotion Adele summons in “Someone Like You,” amplified further by her Brit Awards performance, should reassure faithful and discerning listeners that her reign as 2009 Best New Artist, floating regally above dispassionate Top 40 artists, isn’t over. Still, her slip into the mainstream on 21 suggests she’ll have to fight to avoid sinking into that slick world; perhaps this means choosing a producer other than Columbia Records co-president Rick Rubin, who mixed 21. Until then, even with this recent dimming, Mademoiselle Adele’s beacon of originality still shines, though Adele herself remains a puzzle.
Adele will perform at Boston’s House of Blues on May 15th, which Michela hopes to attend despite her reservations about 21.
In addition, Michela recommends 21 (Bonus Tracks) over the widely-released 21 reviewed here. 21 (Bonus Tracks) features five additional tunes that she finds makes the album far superior to the original release.