Adele's '21' album: Sophomore disc designed to transcend trends

Monday, February 21, 2011; 5:03 PM

Adele 21

Adele 21

Like Feist before her, steamship-voiced British singer-songwriter Adele Adkins makes lifestyle music, songs of understated loveliness and soon-to-be ubiquity geared toward Starbucks-goers, NPR listeners and your mom. Adele's Grammy-winning debut, "19," was a breakup album with piano and guitar ballads. Her sophomore disc, the even better "21," is a breakup album with strings and a vague inclination toward rootsiness.

Everything on it is precisely calibrated to transcend genres, to withstand trends, to be just so: It's slightly angled toward country, even more toward R&B. It's arch without being unpleasant, sad without being sentimental. It could easily have been released in 2006, or 2015.

Constructed by a team of high-priced hitmakers led by Americana Authenticity Signifier Rick Rubin, "21" is informed, but never overwhelmed, by roots music: The booming opener "Rolling in the Deep" draws heavily from blues; "Rumour Has It" is set in a fictional universe where Dusty Springfield fronts the Ronettes; "One and Only" is an awe-inspiring gospel rave-up.

"21" treats Adele's big, throbbing bruise of a voice with matter-of-factness: If anything, she undersings. Rubin and Co. too often seem content to let her rafter-rattling voice handle the heavy lifting, and after a strong start, the disc yields to a forgettable midsection of mostly mid-tempo tracks that are remarkable only because Adele is singing them.

Some, like the ballad "Take It All," will be interesting six months from now, when someone like Diplo remixes them. Others, like the galloping, out-of-place synth-rock number "Set Fire to the Rain," even Adele can't save.

- Allison Stewart

Recommended tracks: "Rolling in the Deep," "One and Only," "Someone Like You"

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