From Dusty Springfield to Amy Winehouse, pop singers in England with a passion for American soul music have found an escape hatch from the often limiting, even stultifying world of British pop — from Cilla Black and The Spice Girls at one extreme to Susan Boyle at the other. As young as she is, Adele connects with the world-weary romanticism that suffuses a slow-building powerhouse of a song in tracks like "One and Only."
Adele — her full name is Adele Adkins — possesses a smoky voice that's good at expressing longing, ruefulness, irritation and regret. It's a deep voice with a graininess that can also be used to delineate jealousy and revenge, as when she addresses some competition for a man she lost — and might yet regain — in "Rumor Has It."
Adele has worked with a number of different producers on 21, the best known of whom is Rick Rubin. The album's instrumentation is heavy on drums, piano and horns — soul-music ammunition that often takes precedence over the guitar. On the album's first single, "Rolling in the Deep," she constructs the song before your ears. She begins by singing over a stark backdrop, then adding keyboards and a female backup chorus to create a vast terrain across which Adele's voice ranges, dramatizing her search for just the right tone and words to express her dismay that a man would dare break her heart.
The danger for a performer like Adele is that she can sometimes use her gifts solely for the sake of proving her vocal power; the result is, at its prettiest and its most superficial, a song such as "Turning Tables" — the sort of thing an American Idol contestant would give her right lung to turn into a power ballad.
Adele has collaborated on this album with a wide range of songwriters who've written for acts such as the Dixie Chicks, Beyonce, Cee Lo Green, and the only American Idol within spitting distance of her: Kelly Clarkson. It's clear that, having recently reached adulthood while plotting a career, Adele is trying on different styles. She's said in interviews that 21 was influenced by her recent discovery of old country music, though you wouldn't know it from the gospel and soul inflections that dominate.
But for anyone singing this well, with such authority and yet such openness, Adele's restless musical curiosity bodes well for future explorations of that jealousy, anger and regret that breaks her heart — and ours.