The most entertaining part about Adele's new album thus far has been the dozen times I've been asked by friends and acquaintances while it's playing: "Is she British?" They ask because they've heard or read this fact, but upon listening to the soulful singer's brassy, sassy new "21," they're compelled to double-check. She's not the first contemporary British chanteuse to mine and refine American blues and soul -- see Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Imogen Heap -- but she's certainly mastered not only the music's muscle (not to mention Muscle Shoals) but, this time around, the commercial sheen to make it highly marketable.
The debut from Adele Laurie Blue Adkins, 2009's "19," won instant notice for the 19-year-old's no-nonsense attitude and throaty, beyond-her-years voice, supported by good writing on tunes like the hit "Chasing Pavements." Some the earthiness has been brushed off for "21" -- now at two weeks atop Billboard's albums chart -- and that songwriting quotient has been amped up by several writers with a bead on radio, including Ryan Tedder (OneRepublic), Paul Epworth (Florence and the Machine) and, from Semisonic straight to saccharine, the dreaded Dan Wilson. This is good news and bad news -- good because the stronger the song structures, the more firm the footing for Adele's vocal workouts, belting and breaking as the twists and turns allow. The bad part: "21" starts very strong but too quickly devolves into the kind of power balladry that's going to start attracting Celine Dion fans.
That strong start, though, can't be beat, driven by some chunky rhythms and Adele's dominant theme on "21," serious heartbreak. Bold and vindictive in "Rolling in the Deep," a loud, arms-open-wide declaration of what might have been, she taunts a former lover: "Baby, I have no story to be told / but I've heard one of you and I'm gonna make your head burn / Think of me in the depths of your despair / Make a home down there as mine sure won't be shared." In the cool, saucy "Rumor Has It," she's still sneering at this poor reject and his new trophy. "Sure, she's got it all," she sings in half voice, "but baby is that really what you want?" -- and she draws out that question mark through four taut seconds of silence, allowing the dude to swallow hard and consider the enormity of his mistake and the doom to follow. Lip-smackin' good.
By the third track, however, the sparkle dims into piano-driven ballads that should have gone to Vanessa Carlton. "Don't You Remember" is rooted in some lovely acoustic plucking, already refreshing after the big-band bombast, but itself degrades into a modern country chorus and refrain, followed by the repetitive and cranked-up "Set Fire to the Rain." (OK, now she's not emotionally powerful, she's just loud.) Near the end, she throws in a cover of the Cure's "Lovesong," a delicately played but ineffectual bid to wave hello to Gen-Xers twice her age. When she can finish an album as strongly as she starts this one, she'll have it all.