Yes, I know I’m late to the party.
It’s weird to sit here and write this review knowing full well that it seems like the entire world loves this album. It was a week ago exactly that I read this year’s Grammy nominations, and had to type “Adele” more times in one night than I might have ever before. But I’m not just reviewing 21 in light of its (predictable) Grammy storm, I’ve wanted to review this album for a month or so now. It’s undoubtedly this year’s biggest album commercially (with a strong critical pull to boot), so let’s get to it: What made 21 take over?
When I did my half-year wrap up in July, I said that Adele’s success has been a massive surprise. And, while I don’t deny that, I do believe that 21 was written with success in mind. The album’s rap sheet reveal cowriting credits from British mega-producer Paul Epworth, OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, Dan Wilson (of Semisonic), Fraser T. Smith, and Francis White, with Epworth producing, as well as Tedder and veteran Rick Rubin. While the heart and soul of 21 rest with Adele herself, she also employed a high-cost/high-reward production team. Not a bad thing by any stretch, but it shows why 21 sticks how it does.
Another key element in 21‘s across-the-spectrum appeal is that it’s a very traditionalist record. Recorded with an in-studio band, the album relies mostly on drums, bass, piano, and guitar lines for instrumentation, and is a breath of fresh air for pop fans tired of synth-loaded club bangers and indie kids exhausted by an endless stream of albums with reverb heavy production. By contrast, the production on 21 is pristine; everything sounds completely organic, but not under-produced, either. The drums punch, the bass pulls, and Adele flourishes.
And damn does she do it. Adele’s powerhouse voice is hands down her strongest asset, and she uses it to her advantage all over this album. She gets pissed on “Rolling in the Deep”, but manages to wail on “Take It All”, and gives a nuanced, heartbreaking performance with closer “Someone Like You”. Not only that, but she does all of this without any real obvious effort, and her performances all over 21 are incredibly likeable.
Anyone who’s ever been broken up with can relate to 21. Lyrically, Adele doesn’t keep herself to one aspect of the break-up; she’s telling off lying friends on “Rumour Has It”, frustrated in “Turning Tables”, and reflective on “I’ll Be Waiting” and “Don’t You Remember”. It’s the same sort of diary-esque lyrics that made Taylor Swift a hit, but more mature than most of the latter’s material to date, and as a result, covers a much broader spectrum.
And, of course, 21 is a big album because it has great songs. The one-two opening combo of “Rolling in the Deep” and “Rumour Has It” is a solid, if false, lead; the two breathe a blues/soul/R&B fire that’s never quite seen again in the next 40 minutes. And, of course, “Someone Like You” is one of the saddest, most touching mainstream songs in memory. “One and Only” goes from uppity-gospel to solemn hymn, and the transition works. Elsewhere, Adele’s soul-pop voice and good arrangements hold the quality to a decent good.
So if critics love it, the thing sells circle around Lady Gaga and Lil Wayne, and it’s appearing in year-end lists already, why isn’t that a nice 5/5 sitting at the bottom of the page? 21‘s problem is that despite Adele’s great performances, good lyrics, and great voice, it isn’t an extraordinary record. It rarely surprises you, and even when it does, the surprise isn’t always good. For example, “Set Fire to the Rain” (…?) is too-upbeat for its own good, and the inclusion of a song written as a wedding present (a cover of the Cure’s “Lovesong”) is baffling on an album that might as well be subtitled Screw My Ex, let alone right before “Someone Like You”.
Sequencing is what also hurts 21: book-ended by two great songs one way and a lone showstopper the other, the other 8 tunes mostly stick to mid-tempo balladry, and makes for a tolerable if not as compelling listen as “Rolling” or “Someone Like You”. Half a minute of “I’ll Be Waiting” blinks by just as much as 4 full ones, and after proving he can write more than knockoffs of “Apologize” with “Rumour Has It”, Ryan Tedder drops in for “Apologize” knockoff “Turning Tables”.
All of this adds up to an album that’s thrilling, and then not, but never deviates. On one hand, the quality never dips especially low, but on the other, it’s easy to zone out once you hit “Take It All”, or even “Don’t You Remember”. Regardless, 21 is a monster of a release, and is good enough for all of us to be ok with that, three and a half stars out of five.
tl;dr: Adele proves that you can please everyone and still come out relatively unscathed. 3/5/5