Album reviews

A vocal presence regardless of age

Adele: ‘21’

By James Reed
Globe Staff / February 22, 2011

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The years between ages 19 and 21 are often formative ones, a fact that you hear throughout Adele’s assured new sophomore album. The British singer was still in her teens when she wrote the songs on her debut, which won Adele the Grammy for best new artist in 2009. Her riveting vocals on that album suggested she wasn’t an ingenue, but the songwriting came straight from the heart of a young woman getting her first taste of failed romance. She called her first album “19,’’ and its follow-up is “21.’’

Here’s the catch with Adele: No matter the quality of the songs, and many of the new ones are sublime, Adele’s vocal prowess always ensures each performance grabs you by the collar. She finds a dramatic setting for her passion and pathos on “Rolling in the Deep,’’ a thunderous, percussive update on Motown soul. She keeps the streak alive on “Rumour Has It,’’ a sassy kiss-off that allows Adele to cop some attitude.

That punch to the stomach makes the weaker moments even more glaring. Light ’70s R&B (“He Won’t Go’’) and middling soft-rock (“Don’t You Remember’’) don’t suit the gale force Adele unleashes; surprisingly, both of those songs were produced by Rick Rubin, who’s known for extracting an artist’s essence, not obscuring it.

Mostly, though, “21’’ sounds as though it was built around Adele’s presence. She knows how to make the most of very little: A piano shadows her on “Take It All’’ and “Someone Like You,’’ and the effect — like so much of this album — is devastating. (Out today)

ESSENTIAL “Rolling in the Deep’’

Adele performs at the House of Blues May 15.