Sometimes you only really start appreciating someone like Adele when she’s singing a bad song. There’s some workmanlike, blandly tasteful arrangement lolling behind her like a boiled potato; the lyrics have gone all banal; the string section seems to be courting viewers of whichever network-TV drama needs to score a pensive montage … and yet the main thing you’re thinking is: Who broke Adele’s heart, and why would they do that, and can they not hear how marvelous she is?
So it is that a few mediocre tracks on Adele Adkins’s second album, 21 — that’s the age she was when writing it — wind up being the most convincing. She has the voice and the personality to draw you into just about anything, and that’s especially clear when the song isn’t helping. The voice in particular is easy to love, an English soul voice with a bluesy air; she makes it sound weighty, like it’s an effort to push out, then uses it in a way that’s agile and light as smoke. It’s nice enough that the music on her first album, 19, tended to clear out of her way entirely, letting her sing with just a hint of guitar or piano in the background. (19 never gave you that mediocre-track amazement — that realization that you’re loving the singer and not the song — because its mediocre tracks just felt like a vocal recital.) And she kept the voice pleasantly controlled — sometimes too much so — because, well, she was just nice like that. Sort of a commercial triumph of niceness, actually. Sometime back when Amy Winehouse was just starting to unravel, the British record industry seemed to be snapping up dusty-voiced young women, in guises ranging from retro-sixties belters to snarky teenage mean girls: Is it any surprise that one of the most successful would be everyday Adele, who put on the finest vocal show and the fewest airs? It’s easier to curl up for comfort with a pop star who’s not acting too cool.
The unassuming niceness cracks on 21, because Adele’s had her heart broken, and she’s collected what sounds like a few months’ worth of diary entries to spill about it — ranging from the messy, drunken, angry ones to those wise-and-mature “I wish you well” recaps that make a breakup sound like a substance-abuse recovery project. The album kicks off at its strongest and fiercest, with a pair of terrific, ominous stomp-and-clap numbers, and threats of Adele’s revenge. “Don’t underestimate the things that I will do,” she sings, on “Rolling in the Deep,” and no, the song’s good enough that you don’t. (The way her voice breaks upward on “deep” is the whole record’s finest hook.) Then there’s “Rumor Has It,” with its sinister roadhouse twang and snotty taunting, and we’re a terrific distance from the wispier stuff on 19 — Adele’s going big here.
The album doesn’t ever quite rise back to that level; there’s a burst of near-apocalyptic pop-ballad drama toward the end of “Set Fire to the Rain,” but it doesn’t catch nearly so well. Still, Adele’s collaborators keep her supplied with good enough material — Paul Epworth, who co-wrote “Rolling in the Deep,” helps her try on some great Dusty Springfield styles — to keep the charm up. And at some point, it’s too late anyway, and you’re only listening to her — right through to a cover of the Cure’s “Lovesong” that sounds bizarrely like something Sting would do.
I have no idea if that counts as a good album or not: For me, it’s three or four great songs and a singer lovable enough that I have nothing but goodwill for hearing her tackle the rest. As far as the heartbreak goes, breakup albums usually just make me wonder who’s on the other end of them. It must be difficult to break up with a pop star, right? (Suddenly a cool thing you could mention at parties becomes a thing that will make you sound vicious and bitter whenever someone turns on the radio and you start sulking about being the subject of a hit song.) Whoever the heartbreaker is, it sucks for them that the most immediate songs on 21 are the jeers and dressings-down.