British singer Adele is no shrinking violet.
She took home the best new artist Grammy two years ago. Critics collapsed into helpless piles of hosannas; Adele was singled out as part of the new British vanguard of retro soul/R&B practitioners (see also: Duffy, Amy Winehouse).
Where her contemporaries have faded somewhat, Adele has synthesized a sizable quantity of singularly American music (she has name-checked artists like Wanda Jackson, Alison Krauss and Neko Case) and put her own, uniquely powerful spin upon it.
The result is 21, a sweeping, frequently shattering collection that, like all great music, doesn't fit neatly into any easily defined space. As with 19, 21's subject matter never strays terribly far from matters of the heart. If 19 was effectively the diary of a love-scorned teenager rendering her feelings in black and white, 21 is much more ambiguous, struggling to render lovesickness in shades of gray.
Indeed, there's a fascinating tension throughout 21: In the slow-burn ballad Don't You Remember, pleas to recall the spark of passion fall on deaf ears; the stunning, Coldplay-ish centerpiece Set Fire to the Rain will no doubt become the soundtrack to some forthcoming scene of reconciliation in a subpar romantic comedy. The thunderous album opener, Rolling in the Deep, finds Adele castigating a foolish ex -- "We could have had it all," she wails.
There are missteps -- choosing to cover the Cure's Lovesong feels strangely out of step with the rest of the record -- yet Adele, again working with a varied team of producers, betrays no hesitation about following up such an accomplished debut.
Stronger than ever, Adele soldiers forth, armed with one of pop music's most bruising, intoxicating voices, more than ready to find out what life has in store after 21.