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Adele's '21' Gives Heartbreak a Cure

Adele -- '21' -- Columbia -- 4 STARS

By Lauren A. Rubin, Contributing Writer

“I can make guys cry, in song and in real life, as well. I’m good at that,” claimed British singer/songwriter Adele in an interview with music blog Spinner, in response to an outbreak of crying men listening to her sing.

Adele became an international singing sensation in 2009 when her debut album “19” earned her a Best New Artist Grammy. On her most recent release, “21” Adele evokes heavier blues and unexpected bluegrass influences while straying from her traditional pop vocals. Though this gives “21” a different feel than her earlier work, the core of the album is as powerful as ever. “21” is buoyed by gut-wrenching lyrics and the same emotionally charged ballads that let her show off her vocal versatility and make all those boys start sobbing.

Adele claims to have been exposed to country and rockabilly on an American tour. Her newfound Southern charm is evident on the album’s first single, “Rolling in the Deep,” a dark and soulful tune with haunting back-up vocals and a bridge replete with stomps and hand-claps. “Rolling in the Deep” is a revenge anthem on which Adele’s robust voice takes over the martial drums and the penetrating bluesy piano to lament despairingly, “We could have it all / Rolling in the deep / You had my heart inside of your hands / And you played it to the beat.” The song is brilliantly produced, from the muted guitar in the beginning to the slow drumbeat that allows Adele to build gradually to an emotional climax. Though the rockabilly influences are new, the emotion of the track is as powerful as ever.

These country inspirations can be heard on multiple tracks, most notably “Don’t You Remember.” On this track, Adele admits to her flaws in a relationship, singing vulnerably over her acoustic guitar, “I know I have a fickle heart and a bitterness / And a wandering eye / And a heaviness in my head.” Where Adele’s first album focused on being heartbroken by the transgressions of another, “21” shows a progression in her maturity: while this album also deals in similar themes of heartbreak, Adele sings about relationships in their entirety—her flaws included—and the change reveals hidden depths to her lyrics.

Adele makes bold statements with this album, proving that sensitive matters of the heart are of no concern to her. With touchy subjects that would normally be difficult for anybody to describe, Adele is brazen; she uses robust vocals and powerful piano ballads to heft her difficult themes. On “Take It All,” Adele demands answers, asking “Didn’t I give it up? / Tried my best / Gave you everything I had / Everything and no less” while her back-up singers support her in a gospel style clearly reminiscent of Aretha Franklin.

The inspiration of soul legends is evident throughout “21,” but this does not prevent Adele from attempting the unexpected: covering The Cure. Adele takes on “Lovesong,” stripping the song of its original gothic rock sound and giving it a seductively smooth, jazzy energy. Adele empowers Robert Smith’s lyrics. She appropriates the track through her lush sound and dreamy arrangements. This song is yet another example of Adele’s increasingly defined sound, as she is able to turn one of The Cure’s most famous hits into something that sounds like it was written just for her.

Through the complex vocals, articulate writing, and new influences of “21,” Adele’s fans will be able to see a change in her; rather than sticking to the pop-soul that made her famous, she takes her listeners on a versatile journey of foot-stomping blues, head-nodding retro-pop, and finger-snapping jazz. Though artists often have difficulty using new sounds while retaining their original styles, Adele does so effortlessly, with emotional tracks that faithfully represent the multifaceted nature of her sultry voice. Heartbreak is nothing new for Adele, but she takes on an entirely different approach to prove something she did not demonstrate on her first release: that she is not just emulating the greats, she’s becoming one.

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