Adele Adkins is still a young woman -- just 27, which is to say two years older than the number on the cover of her third album. But she’s determined to sound as old as the hills. The love-wracked ingénue of 21 has given way to a lioness-in-winter, shouldering a lifetime’s worth of world-weariness and regret. The song titles tell the story: “When We Were Young,” “Water Under the Bridge,” “Million Years Ago.”
In one song, Adele casts herself as Old Woman River, reaching for a soggy riparian metaphor: “The reeds are growing out of my fingertips.” Eventually, she pumps up the ennui to Full Gallic. Harmonically and spiritually, “Million Years Ago” is a cousin to French chanson, with a brooding melody that’s nudged forward by plucked acoustic guitar, and a lyric that sounds like it’s being hissed across a café table to Jacques Brel: “I know I’m not the only one/ Who regrets the things she’s done…Life was a party to be thrown/But that was a million years ago.”
These sentiments have a slightly callow ring: a young person’s idea of an old fogey’s ruefulness. But to be fair, pop stars grow up fast and do a lot of living. Over the last five years, Adele has gone from a rising star to world-beater, releasing an album, 21, that’s the closest the music industry may ever again come to Thriller. Also, she had a baby -- a heady experience that can make a person feel like she’s aged decades overnight. In any case, Adele’s elegiac turn makes sense as a career move. From Edith Piaf to Dusty Springfield to Barbra Streisand and beyond, nostalgia has been standard torch singer fodder. If a diva isn’t mooning over lost love, she’s lamenting vanished time.