Adele’s 21 made its debut in NPR’s “First Listen” series not too long ago, and, true to form, the public radio blogging team introduced the music with an appreciative portrait of the artist and her work. What struck me, though, was that this NPR portrait– unlike the usual ones, which tend to be purely on the positive side of things, at times bordering on breathless in their praise– was accompanied by what I’m tempted to call an apology– or, at the very least, a defense of why a TV pop singer, just barely out of her teens, is worthy of play on National Public Radio. This is what the NPR profile says: “The songs on 21 don’t offer up much specific detail of the heartache Adele says she’s suffering, or even outline the person she’s battling. Her lyrics don’t always reflect a hard-won wisdom or tell stories about a truth that’s tough to swallow.” Then it goes on to praise her voice, as though her powerhouse singing makes up for the shoddy songwriting.
And fair enough, I suppose. Great singing can overcome weak material, to a limited extent, and I don’t think anyone’s going to argue that the main draw for Adele is anything other than those magnificent pipes. But the presumption of the NPR criticism rubs me the wrong way. I’m tempted, for one thing, to believe that the crack about a lack of “hard-won wisdom” in these heartbroken, lover’s laments is more a dig at her age than the lyrics themselves. And the complaint about a lack of specificity– and the more general feeling that the NPR writer is simply tired of love songs, and holds it against Adele that she didn’t completely turn the conventions upside down and reinvent the wheel, so to speak– overlooks what strike me as the more obvious, central truths of this album. For one, it’s more about heart than head– this is music you feel, and that you belt out, along with the singer, while stuck in traffic or cleaning your flat. And for two, there is a level of craft here that is genuinely impressive; just because they aren’t “profound” doesn’t mean they aren’t good songs.
Actually, a lot of them are really great songs. Adele titled her debut album 19 and this one 21, the obvious implication being that she has matured, and that this one is a reflection of where she is now, as a human being and as an artist. And matured she has, not just as a singer but as a songwriter, or, more precisely, a creator of ace singles. To the first point I see little point in elaboration; if you’ve heard Adele then you know she’s a dynamite singer, unfairly tagged as an Amy Winehouse clone in the early days even though she’s always been pretty clearly a better, more human vocalist, I think. And if you haven’t heard Adele’s voice, that’s just your loss, okay?
But as far as the songs go: Yes, this is something of a breakup album, and yes, these are all sort of sadsack love songs– with the exception of the two opening numbers, the smash hit “Rolling in the Deep” and the just-as-good “Rumour Has It,” both of which are more incensed than melancholy, but what really matters is that they’re pure dynamite as singles. “Rolling in the Deep” is an irresistible stomp, and “Rumour Has It” combines Motown harmonies and spy-movie guitar riffs in a way that obviously has the 60s as a touchstone but doesn’t ever recall the era as precisely as, say, a Daptone production might. Adele keeps the passion burning hot enough to make it a real burner even in 2011, though really, pop this good is pretty timeless.
“Turning Tables” is the first of many slow songs, and here Adele eases into something a little showier, the kind of powerhouse ballad that’s made to win shows like American Idol or The X Factor. Call it a throwback to her roots. But it’s not shameless pandering. It’s a beautiful song, the lyric playing out with an intoxicating flow, and that voice! Forget about it. The thing’s just killer. The next song, “Don’t You Remember,” is both slower and flashier, an even more brazen ballad that might be playing on soft rock radio for decades to come, but who cares? Again, she sells it, and it’s triumphant even with its ready-for-Broadway crescendos.
The best example here of the merit of this writing, though, is in the closing number, “Someone Like You.” It’s another ballad, and, while it’s a bit more subtle, it’s every bit the showstopper. The lyric is constructed with real momentum, the hook is ingratiating without being cloying, and the words, far from being lacking in specificity, are emotionally complex: There is great sadness here, and resignation, but also acceptance, maturity, and resilience. It’s a song about heartbreak, and about moving on.
Admittedly, Adele’s instincts as a record-maker are less sharp than her instincts as a singer and as a songwriter, though the faults of this particular record can probably be pinned on the team of producers– Rick Rubin among them– who stack the album a bit too heavy with ballads. But I give them major props for keeping things simple; there are drums and guitars where needed, in many cases just piano and strings. The focus, in other words, is squarely on the voice, and on the songs, and as far as I’m concerned those two things are more than enough to carry this fine, moving pop record.