Three years after she exploded into the charts with her compelling hit singles 'Chasing Pavements' and 'Cold Shoulder', Adele Adkins returns at the still tender age of just 22 (21 when writing and recording the record, hence the name) with her sophomore effort. Working with top class producers and songwriters including Rick Rubin (Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers), Paul Epworth (Florence and the Machine, Plan B) and Ryan Tedder (OneRepublic), perhaps the assortment of collaborators is responsible for the varying levels of quality throughout '21'.
Adele is at her most powerful when busy production is set aside, allowing her powerful, affecting voice to take centre stage. Simple arpeggiated piano leaves plenty of space for the raw emotion of the utterly beautiful 'Someone Like You', while understated orchestration has a similar effect on 'Turning Tables'. But though this is her forte, the young Londoner also has sass in abundance, performing with bags of attitude on bitter, revenge-seeking break up song 'Rolling In The Deep' and the funky, upbeat 'Rumour Has It'.
Where she fails to excel, however, is when the woman herself becomes secondary to styles and conventions imposed on the songs. The country influenced 'Don't You Remember' is smothered in cheese by over-zealous production work, while big pop ballad 'Set Fire To The Rain' is catchy enough, but lacks the soul & emotion of which Adele is capable. '21', it seems, suffers from the same drawback as its predecessor, relying on a small number of exceptional songs to hold up the ones that fall below par.
On the whole, things lean toward the positive though, as the passionate, gospel fuelled 'One and Only' and a solemn, romantic cover of The Cure's 'Lovesong' tip the scales in Adele's favour. A rare and remarkable talent, if only Adele could learn to weed out the filler, she could produce something truly amazing.