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Adele older and wiser on sophomore album ’21’

Ward Pettibone | Wednesday, February 23, 2011

There is something magical about “21,” the second album from British singer-songwriter Adele. Her first album, “19,” was a smashing success, with four Grammy nominations and two wins — and yet in retrospect it seems Adele was just getting started. Amidst the darker, more complex tunes and themes of “21” is an artist who now has the experience and confidence that the songs demand.

The first single and opening track, “Rolling in the Deep,” soars with powerful vocals and foreboding themes. The song has a chilling, quasi-apocalyptic sense of finality. “We could have had it all,” she sings over a chorus of overdubbed Adeles, “rolling in the deep.” The pounding drums in the first verse build into a sweeping, epic chorus that speaks of profound loss and a deep sense of bitterness. It is a daring start to a daring album.

Though “21” does show Adele maturing as an artist, she remains true to what she started in “19,” balancing upbeat or urgent songs like “Rolling in the Deep” and “Rumor Has It” with more reflective, subtle tracks such as “Someone Like You” and “Take It All”. Not once in “21” do we feel that she is hesitating or unsure, instead boldly plunging forward with all the confidence that her lyrics warrant.

The lyrics do occasionally verge on the overwrought, as in the fifth track, “Set Fire to the Rain” (“I set fire to the rain / …Well, it burned while I cried, / ‘Cause I heard it screaming out your name”), but on the whole the album strikes a reasonable harmony among the soul-searching, the desperate and ultimately the hopeful.

The vocals are consistently impressive across 12 tracks, but it is on songs such as “Turning Tables” and “Take It All” that we get a real taste of Adele’s talent as a singer. She is by turns hypnotic, condemning, pleading, contemplative and commanding. It is easy to forget that she is, in fact, only 22 years of age (just 21 when she wrote the songs, hence the album’s title).

“21” is helped along by a long list of collaborators, co-writers and producers, but for the most part, their influence does not get in the way of Adele’s craft. When it does, her vocals usually more than compensate for any other shortcomings. This is perhaps the greatest strength of “21:” the fact that it features such a reliable singer, who can make even the melodramatic “Set Fire to the Rain” enjoyable.

Despite the variety of collaborators, the album is able to maintain a smooth and cohesive experience without being monotonous. Somehow the cinematic “Set Fire to the Rain” eases gently into the peppy “He Won’t Go” without being jarring, and each song brings something new. Still, it is hard to match the visceral power of “Rolling in the Deep,” and with the excellent “Rumor Has It” and “Turning Tables” rounding out the first three tracks, Adele may have set herself up for a front-loaded album.

As a relative newcomer, it is good to see Adele pushing herself to surpass her breakthrough efforts in “19.” One can only wonder where Adele will find herself once she gets to “23” (this title is speculative extrapolation, of course). For now, though, listeners will be more than content with a substantial and memorable album.