Twenty-one means a lot of things for most young’uns (time to leave university, time to legally drink alcohol, time to stop eating cereal with cartoons on the boxes), but for Adele it means dropping the timid precision of her debut and finding some serious sass on her sophomore album. 21 gets off and running with two hand clapping, neck-twisting rhythm and blues tracks that beg for a Beth Ditto collaboration on 25 (or whatever her age when she drops the next album). Like watching Neo fly for the first time in The Matrix, hearing Adele assume full mastery of her voice is a skin-tingling experience.
Adele’s progress from 19 to 21 finds her still young and adventurous enough to diversify her sound throughout the album without forcing solemnity to show her maturity. The songs of heartbreak are familiar ground for a singer of any age, but each one goes beyond plaintive emoting. They convey the simple truth at the end of a journal entry. Once all the questioning and complaining is over, you’re left with the ‘oh well, moving on,’ and Adele finds that place and sings the mess out of it every time. The production in the hands of Rick Rubin, Paul Epworth and Dan Wilson (the latter two also co-wrote on the album), to name a few, is wonderfully tight. The hooks and refrains are as thought out and catchy as the verses. Just try having dead air in a conversation without chanting, “rumour has it!” in your head. Even a song as plainly titled and stripped down as “Lovesong” is rich in emotion.
Adele genre hops in a way that could find her at the CMAs, (“Don’t You Remember”) or the Soul Train Awards, (“He Won’t Go”). She can start a ruckus with the best of her petite pop starlet competitors and has the vocal chops to surpass them. There’s not a slacker in the bunch on 21, which is hard enough for many an artist to pull off at 31 – or even 51 – much less at an age when they’re still too young to rent a car on their own.