Following the staggering success of her debut album, it was always going to be difficult for Adele to live up to expectations when it came to releasing her follow up project. After all, 19 has sold nearly three million copies to date and spawned four GRAMMY nominations, of which she won two. Coupled with her huge success in Europe and the US, I can imagine that there was huge pressure both from fans, the record label, and herself to produce something that would equal or surpass the critical and commercial acclaim 19 recieved. Well, in my opinion at least, it seems that Adele has done the untinkable and achieved just that. Whereas 19 dealt with the dramas of a teenage romance gone wrong, 21 is more serious and focuses on what happens when two people grow apart rather than fall out dramatically. It shows a growth and level of maturity that is surprising given the relatively short three-year gap between the releases, but that's not to say that it's all dull and grown up. On the contrary, album opener (and first single) "Rolling In The Deep" combines stomping blues, soul, and even a bit of gospel to create an anthemic "srcew you" track, and the second track "Rumour Has It" re-introduces us to the fun/cheeky side of Adele that we heard on 19's "Best For Last."
After the one-two punch of the album's first two songs things settle down a bit with the first of the remaining nine ballads/mid-tempos. I'm not usually a huge fan of albums that consist mainly of songs at the slower end of the spectrum and I prefer something a little more upbeat to break things up a bit, but here Adele carries it off admirably. The piano driven "Turning Tables" deals with a lover who can't seem to tell what direction he wants to take the relationship and ends up driving her away, and the epic "Don't You Remember" builds from a simple guitar opening to a full on orchestral torch song with Adele pleading with her ex not to forget her. "Set Fire To The Rain" and "He Won't Go" continue the tale of heartache, and while the lyrics are a little somber, the music and the vocals are strangely uplifting. Things do hit a bit of a rut seven songs in with the hymn-like "Take It All" and the underwhelming "I'll Be Waiting," but then just as you think things are tailing off "One And Only" grabs your attention and pretty much blows everything that preceded it out of the water. This is probably one of the best vocals Adele has ever recorded, and the song is extremely well constructed musically and lyrically. If I close my eyes I can imagine Aretha Franklin going in on this.
Any song that had the task of following "One And Only" was destined to falter and that is definitely the case with her cover of The Cure's "Lovesong." All the ingredients are there, but it just fails to really take off. I think that possibly the success of her cover of Bob Dylan's "Make You Feel My Love" may have influenced the decision to include a cover here and while it's not a bad per se, it just gets a little lost amongst some of the other material. It seems that, in choosing the album closer, Adele followed her own advice and did indeed save the best for last. "Someone Like You" is just Adele and a piano--raw, emotional, and with an epic chorus that will surely make it a favorite to be butchered on American Idol or X Factor in years to come. If "Hometown Glory" and "Make You Feel My Love" were the signature cuts from 19, "Someone Like You" will surely be the song that 21 is remebered for, and I'm sure it'll be the one that snags her that third GRAMMY and innumerable awards.