Album review: Adele, “21” (XL/Columbia)

March 7, 2011

Download Story

With her stunningly powerful debut, then 19-year-old Adele Laurie Blue Adkins instantly shot to the front not only of the pack of British neo-soul divas, but to the top of Merry Old’s list of much-hyped singer-songwriters, leaving Amy Winehouse and Duffy, Leona Lewis and Imogen Heap as well as quite a few others sucking her dust as she strutted forth, chasing those pavements.

When I spoke to Adele in early 2009, she couldn’t have been more self-effacing, well-grounded, or genuinely bemused by her sudden success, and it was hard to imagine that this self-empowered, no-nonsense inheritor of the crown of Etta James would be much altered by winning the best new artist Grammy, or by any other laurel. But something sad happened in the two years between “19” and “21”: Adele went Hollywood—or at least she succumbed to the seductive powers of the slick, soulless, and simplistic pop machine, a familiar story made all the more pathetic because it’s such a cliché and Adele just didn’t seem like the type.

Make no mistake: The singer’s instrument is more powerful on her second set, alternately bold and brassy/sweet and subtle, defiant and angry/soft and vulnerable, but with barely a note or phrase over- or understated. It’s the songs and the production that are problematic. Surely Adele’s life has improved some of late, but wallowing in post-relationship misery is the predominant theme here, and with less of the “I’ll show you” vitriol that made it so much more fun last time.

Instead, we get soggy weepers such as “Turning Tables,” the show tune-like “Take It All,” and a trio of lame lighters-in-the-air power ballads—“Don’t You Remember,” “One and Only,” and “Someone Like You,” co-written with Dan Wilson, once of Minneapolis alt-rockers Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic, but rapidly becoming the new Diane Warren go-to hack for hire (he’s also penned ditties for the Dixie Chicks).

Even the songs that show promise—the gospel-inflected “Rolling in the Deep,” or the soulful and sassy “Rumour Has It”—are dragged down by overly clean, fussy, and mainstream pop productions thoroughly lacking in grit or sweat, courtesy of like Ryan Tedder (Beyoncé, Kelly Clarkson), and the dreaded Rick Rubin, who always has been heavy-handed and way overrated, and never more so than when he forgets that the best recordings he’s ever done, the first few Johnny Cash discs he helmed, succeeded because he did little more than set up a mike and let the star shine.

Here’s hoping Adele recovers some of her luster soon after this disappointing sophomore turd. But that may be too much to ask: “21” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboards album chart, with more than 350,000 copies sold in its first week.