Incredible debut albums are fun because they catch the music industry by surprise.
Amy Winehouse’s Frank, D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar and Erykah Badu’s Baduizm are just a few examples. The brilliant debut album is truly a gem, exciting both in its musical achievements as well the ways in which it reflects a young artist’s potential for something even greater. But of course, it takes an artist’s entire life to write their debut album. The heavy lifting begins when that damn second album comes around. Rarely does a promising new artist release a sophomore album that actually lives up to this aforementioned potential. But when they do, the feat is all the more remarkable.
An outstanding second album reflects an unprecedented growth, depth and creativity that takes the artist’s music in a direction that feels both reassuringly natural yet thrillingly unexpected. Like Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, D’Angelo’s Voodoo, and Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, Adele has most certainly achieved this near impossible balancing act with her sophomore album, 21.
2008’s 19 was a great album with some fantastic singles (“Hometown Glory” and her cover of Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” were particularly stunning), but with 21 Adele has truly arrived. There are absolutely no weak, wasted or awkward moments to be found throughout the album’s 46-minute running time. It moves deftly through a variety of moods and styles without any of them clashing whatsoever. There is obvious source material for the record; Dusty Springfield, Gospel, Country, Patsy Cline, Stax Records and Memphis Soul, to be specific. But unlike 19, 21 reflects Adele’s ever-deepening understanding of this material, allowing her to conjure those influences without sacrificing an aesthetic and personality that is all her own.
Adele’s vocals are truly stunning throughout 21. Country ballad “Don’t You Remember” features a heartbreakingly simple and effective chorus that will leave you in awe (or in tears), and her bossa nova-infused cover of The Cure’s “Lovesong” might not have worked as effectively as it does were it not for Adele’s subtle, masterfully-restrained performance.
But what are really astounding throughout 21 are the details in the arrangements. First single “Rolling In The Deep” is among the most deceptively bizarre Soul songs since Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” marrying funky, southern-fried handclaps and stomping percussion with hypnotic, disco-inspired, falsetto backing vocals. “Take It All” is a lesson in the virtues of a less-is-more aesthetic in soul music; just a despairing Adele, gorgeous piano accompaniment, and a sparingly-utilized backing choir. And “One And Only” is just a classic torch song that builds steadily to an astonishing climax, featuring a haunting Gospel breakdown that will nail you to the wall.
And then the album ends with a positively gut-wrenching bang. Over stark, melodramatic piano accompaniment, Adele stands on an ex-lover’s doorstep, seeking closure. He’s got a new girl. And they’re married now. And he seems happy. But rather than cause an ugly scene, Adele causes a tragic one, lamenting “Nervermind/I’ll find someone like you/I wish nothing but the best/Four you two.”
When you hear “Someone Like You,” you’ll think you grew up listening to this song. It will seem almost supernaturally familiar. You’ll feel as though it’s been with you your entire life, running through your head every now and then, and always stopping you dead in your tracks when it comes on the radio.
Yeah. I think that’s called timelessness.