Second albums can be notoriously fickle undertakings. Just because an artist manages to bottle lighting once doesn't guarantee that she'll know how to do it again. There's a reason, after all, that we have the phrases "one-hit wonder" and "sophomore slump" in our musical lexicon.
British neo-soul singer Adele, however, seems well on her way to evading those inglorious fates—not to mention cementing her status as one of the music world's rising stars. Her debut outing, 2008's 19, generated the Grammy-winning single "Chasing Pavements" and netted Adele a Best New Artist Grammy to boot. With her second effort, 21, the melancholy 22-year-old is proving yet again that heartrending ballads about devastated relationships never seem to go out of style.
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All 11 tracks on 21 deal with romance. Only three have happy endings. "He Won't Go" majors on commitment after the newness of a relationship wears off. "There will be times we'll try and give up," Adele sings. "We'll almost fall apart and burn the pieces/ … But nothing will ever taint us." Similarly, "One and Only" invites a man to commit ("I dare you to let me be your, your one and only") even as Adele acknowledges that love is risky business ("I know it ain't easy giving up your heart/Trust me, I've learned it/Nobody's perfect"). And her cover of The Cure's "Lovesong" revels in the freedom and security a loving relationship provides: "Whenever I'm alone with you/ … I feel like I am home again/ … I feel like I am whole again/ … I am free again/ … I am clean again."
"Rolling in the Deep" evokes the biblical metaphor of reaping what you sow as Adele rebukes a man who's left her ("Turn my sorrow into treasured gold/You'll pay me back in kind and reap just what you've sown"). On "Turning Tables," a woman who's grown tired of manipulation wisely decides to call it quits ("I can't keep up with your turning tables/ … It's time to say goodbye to turning tables"), and she vows to make better choices next time.
On "Don't You Remember," the singer tries to make sense of why giving her beau the space she thought he needed ended up backfiring: "Gave you the space so you could breathe/I kept my distance so you would be free/In the hope you'd find the missing piece/To bring you back to me."
While songs about romantic failures are not inherently objectionable, I wonder about the effect of listening to so many songs about tainted love back to back. On eight tunes, Adele bares her wounded soul, lamenting relationships that have left her reeling. And at times it seems as if she's crossed from denied devotion and disappointment into something much more like unhealthy codependence.
"Take It All," for example, finds her continuing to offer her heart and soul to someone who apparently isn't interested in either: "If only you knew/Everything I do is for you," she sings to the man who's leaving her. "I'll Be Waiting" is even more achingly sad as a woman insists that she'll keep pining away for a man who no longer loves her—even to the point of promising she'll be whatever he wants her to be should he choose to return ("I'll be waiting for you when you're ready to love me again/ … I'll do everything different/ … I'll be somebody different/I'll be better to you"). And album closer "Someone Like You" revolves around a woman who can't come to grips with the fact that the man she still loves has married someone else. Not only does she track him down for one last conversation, she inappropriately hopes this now-married man will be moved by how much she still longs for him ("I had hoped you'd see my face/And that you'd be reminded that for me it isn't over").
A couple of tracks allude to sexual connections with exes (without getting explicit). "Set Fire to the Rain" reminisces, "When laying with you I could stay there/Close my eyes, feel you here forever." "I'll Be Waiting" craves one more evening of intimacy before a relationship ends.
On "Rolling in the Deep," disappointment yields vindictive venting when Adele tells an ex, "I'm gonna make your head burn" and "You're gonna wish you never met me." There's also quite a bit of discussion flying around the Internet about whether the line "I'll lay your ship bare" actually proffers the s-word instead of a boating metaphor.
Listening to Adele's evocative ballads, it's not hard for me to understand why so many critics are raving about her vocal talent. BBC music reviewer Ian Wade, for instance, gushed, "21 is simply stunning. After only a handful of plays, it feels like you've always known it."
But many of these songs are so raw that I found myself thinking thoughts like, Oh you poor dear! You just need to find a nice boy to help you forget all the louts who've tormented you. I wanted to tell her it was all going to be OK.
A few moments of moxie and self-respect do turn up here and there. More often, though, I got the feeling that Adele had lost not only her heart in the relationships she sings about, but her very self as well. On "Don't You Remember," for example, she pleads with an ex, "Don't you remember/The reason you loved me before/Baby, please remember me once more."
The way she sings about her troubles is never explicit or even gratuitous. And I suspect anyone who's ever unwillingly endured the dissolution of a cherished relationship will relate to 21's many moments like these. But I also think Adele's music begs the question of when healthy, healing lyrical catharsis devolves into an emotionally damaging blend of denial and despair.