Review Summary: This is modern pop done right. Bravo, Adele. Bravo.
Few musical artists have had a rise to fame as meteoric as Adele. The British singer has won over audiences worldwide with her blend of soul and indie pop, and journalists have been quick to deem her "the next (insert legendary jazz/soul singer here)". While her work isn't quite up to par with, say, Aretha Franklin (a tough act to follow as it is) or Ella Fitzgerald, the praise she's already been given shouldn't be written off by any means either. Even though her debut 19 had plenty of mediocre moments and weak songwriting, 21 displays a much more mature outlook both lyrically and musically.
In keeping with the "less is more" image Adele seems to frequently employ, 21 is an extremely solid collection of piano pop numbers with lyrics depicting ups and downs of relationships. As simple as that theme sounds, Adele decides to take the "Florence and the Machine" approach; by that, she opts to weave tales of love rather than just talk about love. Her singing and compositions elevate the subject matter to the point that it really sounds like some heavy stuff is on the line. Opener "Rolling in the Deep" has Adele spitting fire at her ex-lover, combining haunting piano chords and soulful vocal harmonies with Adele's lyrical scorn. The stripped-down production (remember, the album's head producer was Rick Rubin) ensures that every little instrumental embellishment is fully audible, from the opening acoustic C-minor chord progression to the bombastic chorus. The same applies to the other end of things, with ballads "Turning Tables," "Take it All," and "Someone Like You" benefiting from their (mostly) humble production and instrumentation. For all three of these songs, the piano is usually the only instrument present along with Adele's vocals, giving the listener breathing room at certain points of the record. "Turning Tables," however, does employ a string section to give some atmosphere and compliment the melancholic piano lines. "Set Fire to the Rain," on the other hand, is simply a beast of a tune; beginning deceptively with a sorrowful piano intro similar to the aforementioned "Turning Tables," the song builds up strength with a strong primal bass drum beat. The climactic chorus is absolutely beautiful, with bombastic strings clashing against the other instruments and Adele giving her best vocal performance of the entire record. The way she belts out each note gives off the feeling that the stakes of the lyrics are exceptionally high, and the dynamics she uses between the chorus, verses, etc. ensure a winning pop number,
Unfortunately, the album does have some filler to plow through. "Lovesong" is a completely unnecessary cover of the classic song by The Cure; while the Latin touch Adele brings is pretty neat, the song just drags and ends up being pretty unmemorable. Speaking of unmemorable, there's also the bland acoustic ballad "Don't You Remember." Adele sounds slightly uninspired as she sings the verses, and the chorus doesn't offer much in the way of a payoff either. While it does offer a hint of happiness in an otherwise melancholic record, the acoustic guitar work is nothing special, and the drums and bass aren't doing anything particularly interesting other than illustrating the background of the piece. For a better "uplifting" tune on the album, one would be better off with second half highlight "I'll Be Waiting," which fully fleshes out Adele's soul influences and puts the beautiful piano playing back into focus.
Despite its problems, 21 is a great and unique piece of work in the world of pop music. The fact that Adele is able to put old-fashioned soul through a modern pop time tunnel and create something this solid is commendable. Adele is one of the few pop artists, like Norah Jones before her, who deserves the praise and hype the media brings her. If this is where pop music might be heading, there could be a very bright future ahead for the genre.