Adele Comes of Age

Courtesy of Columbia Records

Three years after her hit CD “19” was released, Adele is back and keeping up title themes with her latest album “21.”

She has some big shoes to fill after the success of her first album, which went to number one in the UK charts and received no less than four Grammy nominations, in which she was up against well-established artists like Coldplay (all before she even reached her 20s!).

Now she’s back with a new sound, which is apparent from the first few moments of listening to her album. The opening track, “Rolling in the Deep,” shows an Adele with a darker edge. It’s a rhythmic, gospel-like song that is more along the lines of KT Tunstall and The Gossip than her former sound. There are beautiful parts in the melody, such as when she sings, “The scars of your love/ Remind me of us…” But as the first single to be released from the album, it doesn’t come close to “Chasing Pavements.”

By the third track, she’s back to familiar territory with “Turning Tables.” The piano and orchestra that were so prominent in her last album are back for this song. Perhaps I’m just partial to her old sound, but this is one of the better songs on “21.” It’s much more simple and stripped down, which means we get to hear how good her voice really is.

“Someone Like You,” another one of the standout tracks on “21,” is in the same vein. It takes the orchestra out altogether, leaving just Adele’s voice and the piano in an achy ballad about love gone wrong. The simplicity of the production works to her advantage again, making for a song that sounds more honest and intimate.

Aside from a few stripped-down songs, much of the album is over-produced. It seems to be a pattern with sophomore CDs, especially from artists whose first CDs did very well, to go heavy on the production the second time around as if they are trying to top themselves by sounding “bigger.”

The heavy production only ends up taking away from Adele’s voice, which really doesn’t need all of the background noise to carry a song. Her voice ends up getting muddled in the mix, when it should be the main feature.

In “Rumor Has It,” Adele competes with handclaps, drums, twangy guitar and background singers in the chorus of the song. Granted, there’s not much of a melody to stand out anyway; just two notes and the title of the song are repeated over and over.

Another problem with the album is that the melodies are pleasant, but not memorable. They are much more simple, as “Rumor Has It” can attest to, compared to songs from “19.” It’s not as if Adele can show off her voice when she’s only singing two notes!

Her older songs like “Daydreamer” gave her much more room to show off her vocal prowess. And “Right as Rain” was a much more lively melody with lots of movement.

There’s also an odd song here and there that has nothing to do with the rest of the album stylistically. Songs like “Set Fire to the Rain” (a dramatic and impossible title) sound more like piano pop-rock á la The Fray and their other copycat bands. And her cover of The Cure’s “Lovesong” is oddly reminiscent of lounge and elevator music. Whatever happened to the dark, gospel-bluesy direction she seemed to be going in at the beginning of the album? By the end of the album, you will forget about it completely because it’s abandoned after the first two songs of the album.

One thing that is consistent about “’21” is the lyrical content. All of the songs are about love lost or love gone wrong. That’s typical for Adele and what she does (ballads and all) but there’s kind of a deeper sadness and bitterness in her lyrics, like “I won’t let you close enough to hurt me/ I won’t ask you, you to just desert me.” Especially when you compare it to the proud, spunky attitude of her lyrics three years ago in songs like “Right of Rain” when she said, “There’s no room in my bed as far as I’m concerned/ So wipe that dirty smile off please.” I guess she just grew up and got sad!

“21” is a decent album with some good songs, but it’s so hard not to compare it with her first CD and wish for the past.  She has the vocal talent and the songwriting talent — she co-wrote every song on the CD — to do great things.  Hopefully a few years from now when she comes out with “’24,” she’ll bring back the stripped down style and have us humming her tunes incessantly and against our will all over again.

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars