Adele: 21 (Album Review)

On January 24, Adele will release 21 in the UK, the highly anticipated follow-up to her Grammy Award winning debut, 19.

There’s been an outpouring of overwhelmingly positive critical praise surrounding this record from various media outlets over the past few weeks, so I’m going to caution you now: Believe the hype. It really is that good.

21 was produced and co-written by a varied cast of talented musicians, including 19 producers Jim Abbiss and UK hit-maker Eg White, as well as Rick Rubin (co-president of Columbia Records) and Paul Epworth, the British producer responsible for–amongst many achievements–Florence + The Machine‘s flawless 2009 debut, Lungs.

But despite the wealth of talented producers sitting behind the soundboard in the studio, it’s impossible to deny the true talent at the helm of this project: Adele.

Like a modern day reincarnation of Dusty Springfield, the young UK songstress is a throwback to the legendary voices of yesteryear. Her voice’s soulful quality, technique, depth and sheer power is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

But beyond being an adept vocalist, it’s Adele’s ability to emote that carries her a cut above most of today’s singers: When she’s angry, she burns. When she hurts, she bleeds. And we, as the listeners, feel it with every song. To think she was only 21 years old at the time of writing and recording this album? Well, it’s almost frightening.

“Sure, she’s got it all / But baby, is that really what you want?” Adele taunts on the wicked, sauntering Ryan Tedder-produced “Rumour Has It”–one of the many bluesy, country-tinged offerings on the new record–a sound first introduced to her by the tour bus driver during her American tour last year, which resulted in a wealth of new influences including “Wanda Jackson, Garth Brooks, early Johnny Cash, early Dolly Parton, the Carter Family…especially June Carter.”

Yet while the album is occasionally colored with flashes of bright, playful melodies as displayed on “Rumour Has It,” the bulk of the record is mired in sorrow and rage, as evidenced in the gigantic lead single, “Rolling In The Deep.” “The scars of your love, they leave me breathless / I can’t help feeling we could have had it all,” Adele achingly belts out during the song’s pounding chorus.

If “Rolling In The Deep” is 21‘s raging storm, it’s the album’s closing moment that finds the dark clouds slowly rolling away.

“Someone Like You,” is–as pop producer RedOne recently described Lady Gaga‘s upcoming single, “Born This Way”–almost too precious to talk about. “Never mind, I’ll find someone like you / I wish nothing but the best for you too,” Adele sadly assures herself above a simple, devastating piano melody. The song burns with a raw ache that we can both hear and feel. They just don’t write them like this anymore! Simply put: This song is everything.

However, it’s “Set Fire to the Rain”–apart from the two aforementioned numbers–that may well be the album’s crowning achievement.

Produced and co-penned by Fraser T Smith (Taio Cruz‘s “Break Your Heart”; James Morrison‘s “Broken Strings”), “Set Fire To The Rain” is a complete and utter triumph for the young chanteuse; an aching power ballad that packs enough of a punch to cause jaws to drop to the floor.

“I set fire to the rain, watched it pour as I touched your face,” she cries out during the song’s dramatic, chill-inducing chorus as pianos and string crash and burn beneath the surface. The song plays like an instant classic and, with any luck, may become a pop standard for years to come when released as the album’s second single.

Additional highlights include the white flag-waving surrender of “Take It All,” (“So is it over? Is this really it? / You’re giving up so easily, I thought you loved me more than this”) and the twangy “Don’t You Remember,” a simple, heartbreaking moment of mourning that finds Adele desperately searching for some sign of life from her former flame: “When was the last time you thought of me? Or have you completely erased me from your memories?” Adele woefully croons atop the song’s slow strumming guitar.

There’s also the breathtakingly romantic bossa nova swing of “Lovesong,” Adele’s acoustic take on The Cure‘s oft-covered 1989 hit single. In the end though, it’s hard to spotlight particular standouts on a record complete with so many quality offerings.

21 is a gorgeous collection of honest lyricism and winning songcraft. It’s an incredibly personal experience, complete with a genuine depth and sincerity that trumps its predecessor and proves Adele to be even more of a force to be reckoned with than most had probably imagined.

The album will undoubtedly go on to become one of the major contenders for many “Best Of ’11” lists compiled later this year, and is nearly guaranteed as much–if not more–critical praise and recognition as her 19 received when award season comes rolling around once again.

And let’s not forget, as it’s worth repeating: She’s still only 21 years old.

21 was released on January 24 in the UK. (iTunes) (iTunes UK)

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