TERRY GROSS, host:
Adele won two Grammys in 2009 for her debut album, "19." Her second album debuted last week and rose to number one. It's called "21" because that's how old she was when she recorded it. She's since turned 22.
Rock critic Ken Tucker says it's her voice, even more than her material, that makes Adele special.
(Soundbite of song, "Take It All")
ADELE (Singer): (Singing) Didn't I give it all? Tried my best? Gave you everything I had. Everything and no less? Didn't I do it right?
KEN TUCKER: 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 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 a worldly, weary romanticism that suffuses a slow-building powerhouse of a song such as "One and Only."
(Soundbite of song, "One and Only")
ADELE: (Singing) You've been on my mind. I grow fonder every day, losing myself in time, just thinking of your face. God only knows why it's taken me so long to let my doubts go. You're the only one that I want.
I don't know why I'm scared. I've been here before, every feeling, every word, I've imagined it all. You'll never know if you never try to forgive your past and simply be mine.
I dare you to let me be your...
TUCKER: 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 - on "Rumor Has It."
(Soundbite of song, "Rumor Has It")
ADELE: (Singing) She, she ain't real. She ain't gonna be able to love you like I will. She is a stranger. You and I have history, or don't you remember? Sure, she's got it all, but baby, is that really what you want?
Bless your soul, you've got your head in the clouds. She made a fool out of you and boy, she's bringing you down. She made your heart melt, but you're cold to the core. Now rumor has it she ain't got your love anymore. Rumor has it.
TUCKER: Adele has worked with a number of different producers on "21," the best known of whom is Rick Rubin. The instrumentation on the album 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.
(Soundbite of song, "Rolling in the Deep")
ADELE: (Singing) See how I'll leave with every piece of you. Don't underestimate the things that I will do. There's a fire starting in my heart, reaching a fever pitch and it's bring me out of the dark.
The scars of your love remind me of us. They keep me thinking that we almost had it all. The scars of your love, they leave me breathless. I can't help feeling we could have had it all. (Unintelligible) You had my heart inside of your hands...
TUCKER: 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.
(Soundbite of song, "Turning Tables")
ADELE: (Singing) I can't keep up with your turning tables, under your thumb, I can't breathe. So I won't let you close enough to hurt me. No, I won't ask you, you would just desert me. I can't give you what you think you give me. It's time to say goodbye to turning tables.
TUCKER: 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 and plotting a career, Adele is trying on different styles. She's said in interviews that this album, "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, her restless musical curiosity bodes well for future explorations of that jealousy, anger and regret that break her heart - and ours.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Adele's new album, called "21." You can hear a Tiny Desk Concert featuring Adele - recorded at NPR - on the website NPRMusic.org.