By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
Adele is never going to be a diva. Too nice. Too British. Hardly redoubtable. The other conditions are there, though: the big, honking, wood-smoked voice; the imposing vocal and physical presence; the glassy-eyed beauty, with that faint divot of a cleft chin; and the songs. Oh, the songs. 21, Adeles second albumnamed for her age at the time she began composing ithas a divas stride and a divas purpose. With a touch of sass and lots of grandeur, its an often magical thing that insists on its importance. Scorned by a nasty breakup, the singer, born Adele Laurie Blue Adkins, co-wrote 10 of the 11 songs amid the aftershocks. Its a raw, flatly stated document, encased inside a slab of good old-fashioned record-label doohickery.
Break-up albums are like elbows: We all got em, and no one can lick em. They persist because they always feel more consequential, more intimate, more imbued with emotional wallop. And stacked to its gills with mercenary songwriters and producers, 21 is a personal project blessed with the good fortune of priority. In 2007, Adele signed with Richard Russells XL Recordings and became a star in her native U.K. Less than a year later, a joint deal was brokered with Columbia, and Adeles debut, 19, was delivered to the U.S. An initial commercial stall was bolstered by a fortuitous Saturday Night Live appearance (coinciding with a cameo from Sarah Palin, speaking of aspirant divas). In 2009, Adele won the possibly curse-ridden Best New Artist Grammy (Evanescence! Arrested Development! Milli Vanilli! Esperanza Spalding!) and nonetheless persevered; 19 is now nearly platinum.
Which means 21, already a chart-topper overseas, deploys the big boys. Weve got the sometimes-schlocky Diane Warrenin-training Ryan Tedder (he of Leona Lewiss Bleeding Love and Far*East Movements rising Rocketeer), credited on two of the albums finest songs (Turning Tables and Rumor Has It). Then theres stalwart Brit rock impresario Paul Phones Epworth (his Rolling in the Deep is a standout), the emerging Fraser T. Smith, Adeles trusted collaborator Eg White, and even ye olde grande poobah of the Serious Album, Rick Rubin, awoken from his Linkin Park/Kid Rock/Chili Peppers malaise to produce four sterling, restrained variations on modern soul.
Still, its another industry veteran who crushes it. Dan Wilson, former frontman for the so-underrated-theyre-now-overrated 90s one-hitters Semisonic, co-wrote three songs with Adele, including the massive, clenched-chest ballad, Someone Like You. Its a timeless sort of thing, destined to be sung in American Idol audition rounds for years; Whitney Houston wouldve clobbered it 20 years ago. Backed only by a piano, Adele offers acid-dipped shots: Never mind, Ill find someone like you/I wish nothing but the best for you, goes the back-blowing chorus. Her rich and nuanced voice goes up a full register into a near-shrieked whisper as she sings, sounding like she might lose it a little. She rebounds on each verse, gathering herself and leaning back into pity and bitterness. Its a real stop-what-youre-doing song. Greys Anatomy is definitely going to ruin it soon.
But for now, as with most of this album, the line here between melodrama and pathos is wafer-thin, and Adele toes it deftly. Its what separates her from her contemporaries in the mid-00s wave of British white-girl r&b-dom. Shes more powerful and empowered than Duffy, more interesting and less mechanized than Leona Lewis, shorter and smarter than Joss Stone, steelier than Lily Allen, and maybe even more talented than that wastrel of promise, Amy Winehouse. 21 probably isnt the best album Adele has in her, but it just might make her famous enough to finally be a pain in the ass.
Adele plays the Beacon Theatre May 19