Adele has spent the last four years fighting her way out of Amy Winehouse's beehived shadow, but it's only in the last few weeks that she's made a credible bid for her own place in the upper tier of female pop singers. As anyone who follows British radio will tell you, Adele has emerged as a contemporary master of the breakup song: On the gorgeous "Someone Like You" she summons the strength to move on, while the super-charged pop-gospel number "Rolling in the Deep" finds her confronting an ex-lover with the wrath of the righteous. Adele's sophomore effort, 21, was released overseas late last month, and thanks to those singles, it has yet to cede the #1 spot on the U.K. Albums Chart. And so, 21 sees Adele decisively dispatching her retro-soul rival only to confront a more daunting adversary: herself. Or perhaps more accurately, her own marketability.
Adele sings the hell out of the songs on 21, but much of the album plays as a cautionary tale as to what can go wrong when a set of songs is assembled by committee. Grizzled super-producer Rick Rubin lends his touch to the album, as does a team of songwriters consisting (not exhaustively) of mercenary hitmakers like Ryan Tedder, Paul Epworth, Greg Wells, and Dan Wilson. Between them, the foursome has written for artists ranging from Leona Lewis to the Dixie Chicks to Cee-lo to Katy Perry. Despite the breadth of their work, the team seems to be in unanimous agreement as to what an Adele song should sound like: a four-minute runtime; a mixture of strings, piano, and acoustic guitar which should begin quietly and swell up around the two-minute mark; and a chorus which should recur no fewer than four times over the course of the song. It's as though none of 21's contributors wanted to risk a departure from 19's proven formula, and the result is a largely tedious trek through the doldrums of midtempo balladry.
The shameless moment on "Don't You Remember" when all of the instruments drop out in pregnant anticipation of Adele's final, forceful push through the chorus is just the first sign that things are going wrong. From there, the album plays as a struggle between a singular vocal talent and the uninspired material she's been given to perform. And it's a struggle in which Adele manages pretty well; it's just disappointing to think that we'll have to wait for 23 or 24 to hear what Adele sounds like when she doesn't spend half an album working against her collaborators.
Adele's voice has a compelling mixture of character and sheer magnitude, such that the blandest arrangements on the album seem to disappear behind her. This ultimately works in the listener's favor, though it also raises the question as to the point at which a talent like Adele's becomes a liability. It's easy to imagine a studio session in which she absolutely demolishes one of 21's lackluster ballads, prompting her producers to okay a mediocre song whose faults would've been much more apparent had it been performed by a lesser talent.
It's a credit to Adele's finesse that few of the songs on 21 are outright intolerable, but compare any track from the album's middle stretch to the near-perfect singles that serve as bookends and it's hard to deny that 21 represents a missed opportunity. When playing off of a more adventurous arrangement, like Tedder's fusion of doo-wop and spooky Tin Pan Alley blues on "Rumor Has It," or Epworth's hip-hop- flavored "He Won't Go," Adele sounds every bit the phenomenon the press has made her out to be. But for most of 21, she's cast as a fortress of old-school soul besieged by lifeless jingles, a force of nature restrained by multiplatinum fetters.