Pop stars do many things so expertly these days — cross-pollinate with rappers, prance on cotton candy clouds, wear dresses made of perishable proteins — that the quality of the singing itself can often feel like a footnote.
At 22, London-bred Adele Adkins is a more old-fashioned kind of girl. Her 2008 debut, 19, earned her two Grammys, including Best New Artist, for a sound that owed much more to the full-throated ardor of Etta and Ella than any pitch-corrected contemporary. Though her latest, 21, features a slick retinue of current Top 40 producers — the same men helming hits for the likes of Beyoncé, Linkin Park, and Taio Cruz — the vibe is unabashedly analog. Strings swell, pianos shiver, and Adele unleashes 21‘s most powerful instrument: That Voice. On thundering opener ”Rolling in the Deep,” she wears it as a bluessoaked howl; on the Shangri-Las-worthy stomper ”Rumour Has It,” a raspy tease; and on the reworked Cure cover ”Lovesong,” a languid bossa nova lilt.
Scorned-woman balladry is the album’s main, towering trade: ”Turning Tables,” ”Don’t You Remember,” and ”Set Fire to the Rain” billow and surge on the pure force of her titanic wail. At times, Adele’s precocious talent feels prematurely aged by her material, and moments of levity are hard to find. But at its best, 21 is that rarest pop commodity: timeless. A-