The Good: Great voice, Decent music, Good writing, Thematic unity
The Bad: Short, Voice gets a little monotonous upon multiple listens.
The Basics: 21 is the cure to today's mundane dance and hip hop-heavy Top 40, making Adele one of the few artists I am currently listening to!
It has been so long since I've had the opportunity to review a new c.d. for someone who is actually finding success at the time I have access to their album. In fact, the last one might have been Burn The World Down by We Are The Fallen (reviewed here!) and since my wife picked up that album, I have not purchased and new new music. But for Easter, I picked her up 21 which she wanted based on the strength of the single "Rolling In The Deep." Now, she is hooked and I am finding I enjoy the album, though it is hardly perfect.
My wife got me to get her 21 by showing me the video for "Rolling In The Deep" and wowing me with the fact that she had been impressed by a female musical artist. The closest experience I had with Adele before seeing the "Rolling In The Deep" video was having her album 18 recommended to me a few years back when I was looking for someone new to get into. I was not impressed with whatever tracks the shop I asked at put on, so it took me a few years to get to this party. Now that I am there, I have to say I am impressed. 21 leaves me with about the same emotional resonance I had when I first heard Fiona Apple's album Tidal (reviewed here!). Unfortunately for Adele, 21 does not seem to replay quite as well as Tidal. But for those who love Apple and the niche she fills, Adele seems to fit well and in the absence of new material from the familiar, I am happy to support the new.
With only eleven tracks clocking out at 48:04, the biggest strike against 21 is that it is short. Adele is the dominant artist on the album, having co-written each of the songs, save "Lovesong" and performing the vocals on all of the songs. While Adele is not credited with playing any of the instruments, she did co-produce "Someone Like You." It seems like this is largely the musical vision Adele wanted to release, though I always like seeing more creative control asserted from young talent.
And Adele has the talent. 21 is a bodyblow of forceful and depressing music, most of which is obsessed with loss or the anguish that comes from betrayal and abandonment. Songs like "Turning Tables" and "Don't You Remember" have a strong sense of longing, while "Set Fire To The Rain" has an anger that boils throughout the piece. 21 is thematically unified by betrayal, anger and loss in a way that could be oppressive if it were not so well-presented. Adele has a great ear for mixing it up and a powerful voice to deliver her message.
Adele's sound on 21 varies from the sassy jazzy quality of a tell-off ("Rumor Has It") to the murky soul sound that has made "Rolling In The Deep" a radio staple. She has ballads in "Don't You Remember" and "Turning Tables" while "He Won't Go" sounds like a Carole King pop number. Musically, 21 continually mixes it up so stylistically, it is not one type music. This is a strength which plays well to the ear and, in contrast to something like the one-woman-and-a-piano sound that plagued Tidal's replayability, allows 21 to remain constantly stimulating, even over many listens. Going from the pop of "He Won't Go" to the almost Gospel sound of "Take It All," for example, is inspired and helps the album hold together more than just in its themes.
Which brings us to the other unifying element, which works as a cement and to the detriment of 21: Adele's vocals. While the instrumental accompaniment for Adele is varied among many different genres, Adele's vocals are strangely monolithic. Adele has a great voice, dominating the alto and lower ranges to embody a smoky sound perfectly. But she presents each track with a similar, earnest quality that does not stimulate the ear quite as well as her instrumental accompaniment does. Adele sounds good, she has great lung capacity, but her vocals sound very similar track to track in a way that does lessen the replayability of the album. Fortunately, she sings each and every line clearly.
I suspect the reason she sings so clearly is because Adele wants her listeners to hear what she has to say. And she does have something to say, though most of it is anguished and depressing. She sings expertly of betrayal when she sings "I can't keep up with your turning tables / Under your thumb I can't breathe / So, I won't let you close enough to hurt me / No, I won't rescue you to just desert me / I can't give you the heart you think you gave me / It's time to say goodbye to turning tables" ('Turning Tables"). Adele has a great sense of diction and poetry throughout her songs and songs like "Turning Tables" capture the emotions she wants to convey incredibly well. On "Set Fire To The Rain," she has such vivid imagery that makes Adele a master even on this, her sophomore album.
Other songs have more of a sense of being a musical storysong. The longing on "Don't You Remember," for example, is expressed with more of a backstory. When she sings "You left with no goodbye, not a single word was said / No final kiss to seal any seams / I had no idea of the state we were in / I know I have a fickle heart and bitterness / And a wandering eye, and a heaviness in my head / But don't you remember? / Don't you remember? / The reason you loved me before / Baby, please remember me once more" ("Don't You Remember"), Adele paints a very vivid picture. Anyone who has felt righteous anger over loss and longed for a return to the familiar can relate given how she tells the musical story.
But not all of the poetry is incredible. Adele falls into some pretty typical rhyme schemes on one or two of the tracks. There is an unsurprising quality to the lines "I'll find someone like you / I wish nothing but the best for you too" ("Someone Like You"), though these are certainly the exceptions to the rule.
My wife and I are thoroughly enjoying 21, despite the fact that the album is largely depressing. I attribute that mostly to the fact that this is powerful music for those who have been hurt in the past. Adele captures the powerful emotions and expresses them well, which is something we haven't heard from anyone new in a long time. So I am happy to endorse 21 and for the few people who might not have picked up the album yet (it was number one for a few weeks there!), what are you waiting for?! Adele is not a one-hit wonder and 21 has a lot more to offer than just the lead-track.
The best song is "Turning Tables," the low point is the unmemorable "One And Only."
For other women with powerful voices and great albums, please check out:
Oyster - Heather Nova
Laws Of Illusion - Sarah McLachlan
@#%&*! Smilers - Aimee Mann
For other music reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!
© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.