Taking a look at yesterday’s top 10 most downloaded songs on iTunes, one finds the list littered with predictable hits by Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, the cast of Glee, and Justin Bieber. Glancing further down the page, the far superior but vastly underappreciated British soul singer Adele dominates the albums chart with her pitch-perfect new album 21. When she first stepped onto the scene in 2008, Adele enchanted American audiences with hits like “Chasing Pavements” and “Hometown Glory,” scooping up a Grammy in the album’s wake. Now she returns with an epic and mesmerizing follow-up, certainly one of the best albums to be released in recent memory, that is just as sure to woo audiences and Grammy voters alike.
Destined to secure a slot in the pantheon of classic rock songs, “Rolling in the Deep” has already pervaded pop-culture. Lauded by Pitchfork and Rolling Stone alike, the track invites listeners to 21 with a thumping, aching message about a lost love. It has been two years since Adele released 19, and her maturity and cheekiness have blossomed immensely in that time. This time, she emerges from a tattered relationship on top, as she cockily wags her finger on “Deep,” proclaiming, “don’t underestimate the things that I will do.” It’s a message that Adele repeats intermittently, warning listeners of the scorching vocal tornado approaching.
This saucy swagger reappears on the head-nodding “Rumour Has It,” a nuanced and captivating take on infidelity. Adele assumes the role of the temptress, her gorgeous vocals soaring as she howls “rumor has it I’m the one you’re leaving her for.” The song is a marvel. A general rule of thumb when it comes to music is that fast-paced songs hamper any singer’s vocals, no matter how flawless they might be, but “Rumour” breaks that mold with stunning results. Aided by a pounding bass drum, a chorus of heavenly voices, a tambourine, and a southern-sounding guitar, Adele adroitly evades the kiss of death that is the Best New Artist Grammy (good luck to you, Esperanza Spalding, you’ll need it).
On “Set Fire to the Rain,” the album’s best track—a hard decision to make, mind you, as 21 is an absolutely perfect collection of songs—Adele plays the jilted lover with a ferocious twist. With flawless vocals, the songbird guts the man she loves, mournfully remembering when she “threw us into the flames / well, I felt something die / ‘cause I knew that was the last time …. ” The track is layered with alternating remorse and remembrance, a muddy everyman’s mishmash of feelings that Adele captures with heart wrenching fury. Its chorus is back blowing and dizzying, a tornado of vocal adrenaline.
Remarkably, Adele coaxes out the torrid emotions from just one bad relationship, managing to fill the album without once seeming cliched or droll. Breakups are a much-explored topic for singers, because they’re so universally relevant. With assistance from One Republic songwriter extraordinaire Ryan Tedder, Adele finds her footing promptly and powerfully. At its most simplistic, 21 is an album about love, but looking deeper one finds so much more nuance and flavor. It veers between charmingly acidic and gracefully accepting (the standout “Someone Like You,” a goodbye song and also one of 21‘s best).
How remiss I would be if I did not dwell solely on Adele’s masterful and melodious voice. Soulful and raw, her pipes are the most astounding and fascinating in the music industry. She is able to coax every last drop of emotionality from each and every word, like she was wringing a sponge of all its water. It packs the wallop of a woman twice her age, demanding to be heard and adored.
The most fascinating thing about 21 is that one gets a distinct feeling that it is not Adele’s best effort. There is no weak link in the chain of songs that make up this instant classic, but at times it seems as if the singer could be something truly big. The listener catches fleeting glimpses of this capacity on the chilling acoustic “I Found a Boy” and “I’ll Be Waiting,” songs that stretch Adele’s voice to its beautiful limits. Her whispers verge on gospel-like shrieks, gathering themselves again after each verse, dripping with heartbreak and rage. If 21 is just a stepping stone to something greater, then, like Adele, I’ll be waiting.