My preparation for writing this blog was loads of fun, for many reasons, but I really just couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by my nostalgia for it. Released in 2011 by English singer-songwriter, Adele, 21 was absurdly successful and, as a stupid 11 year old who’s entire musical experience was via the radio in Mom’s van and Dad’s truck, I came to know many of it’s songs well. The first 5 tracks, at least, got significant radio play 10 years ago, and not having listened to many of them since then meant that listening to this album was like stepping into a time capsule for me. Once I got over my foolish remembrances, though, I found myself thinking, again and again: “this song is really, really good.” And then when I got past that I couldn’t help but think: “Adele can really REALLY sing.”
Yes, give or take half of this album was played to death on pop-radio a decade ago, and for good reason. In the year 2021 nearly every track on the album has aged wonderfully and, not-surprisingly, Adele sounds just as good today as she did then. It helps that Adele never got wrapped up in the kind of overuse of trendy, new, neat production or instrumentation that cause countless artists to get lost to memory. Quite the opposite, in fact. Adele, stylistically, writes music that exists somewhere between modernity and classicism. Heavy reliance on piano, simple drum kits, and traditional acoustic stringed instruments color 21 with a classic sound and feel that create a timeless quality within each track. Like choosing to shoot a movie on film or in black in white, the sonic decisions made by Adele and her producers result in an experience that is, if nothing else, comfortable. Adele’s voice certainly lends to the timeless quality of 21, but it’s hard to explain why. When I listen to Adele sing, I just get that feeling, y’know? Her voice is powerful, controlled, and moving, but above all else it just contains a certain something. I don’t know what it is, but her voice harkens back to many of history’s greats; Frank Sinatra, Whitney Houston, Ella Fitzgerald, and a select few more all had it too. Stevie Wonder (an incredible singer in his own right) captured the power of which I speak well in “Sir Duke” when he sings “And with a voice like Ella’s on the mic, there’s no way the band can lose!” Indeed, the instrumentals crafted by Adele on 21 are excellent on their own, but let’s be honest. With a voice like Adele’s on the mic, the backing track hardly matters anyways.
Written in the tradition of young singers crafting confessional breakup albums in the wake of heartbreak, 21 adds a worthy entry to a rich library of failed romance albums. Thematically, Adele is hardly exploring anything new, but the way that she does it is worthwhile. Worth the price of admission for the wording alone, Adele proves herself a capable lyricism on her sophomore effort. Using phrases like “Rolling in the Deep” or describing rage by threatening to “Set Fire to the Rain”, as a nerd with a penchant for words, I have so much fun with this record. Using her track order well, Adele manages to take the listener on a journey starting with anger before moving to remorse and reflection, a common progression following a romantic separation. It provides necessary catharsis but does not linger in negativity, opting instead for exploring growth and progress that can come after any loss. Only 21 years old at the time of release, as it reflected in the album’s title, Adele displays maturity not just as a songwriter, but as a person as well.
21 is such an easy to listen to, well crafted, worthwhile piece of pop music that has stood the test of time for 10 years with no signs of slowing down. It’s an album that I would recommend to fans of breakup albums, great vocals, and just pop music in general. I’m glad I returned to Adele’s work 10 years after the fact because damn. It is just so good.