Adele Powers Through a Lifetime of Regret & Weariness on '25': Album Review
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.
Adele certainly has the pipes for the job. 25 is first and foremost a showcase for her titanic voice. The grandeur is announced by the album opener, the global No. 1 “Hello,” which sets a mood of mournful longing while traveling the heroic power-ballad trajectory, from stately verse to booming chorus to falsetto whoops and back again. Her singing is at its most luminous on “All I Ask,” co-written and produced by Bruno Mars’ Smeezingtons crew, which strips back the instrumentation to piano only, and sets Adele gusting over the octaves.
That song, like nearly everything on 25, pursues a simple strategy: get out of the way. The liner notes reveal a roster of heavy-hitting talent -- Max Martin and Shellback, Greg Kurstin, Ryan Tedder, Danger Mouse, Adele’s longtime sidekick Paul Epworth -- but this is not a producer’s record. The one exception is Epworth’s “I Miss You,” whose stuttering beat and eerie swirl of backing vocals and effects gesture mildly in the direction of nu-R&B. For the most part, Adele and her collaborators place her burly mid-range front-and-center and keep the ornamentation to a minimum. There are hints of the singer’s soul revivalism in hooting backing vocals and tolling gospel chord progressions. But there is nothing as explicitly old-school as Motown girl group update “Rolling in the Deep” -- nor anything as gripping.
Looked at from one angle, the Adele aesthetic is perverse -- based, seemingly, on a determination to do the soberest and most uninteresting possible things with an all-world voice. Martin and Shellback’s “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” is sprightlier than anything else on 25, but you can sense those Swedish pop wizards straining to keep the song in check, as if too many hooks, too much fun, would be a crime against the brand and a breach of good taste. Adele, after all, is nothing if not tasteful. In everything but vocal prowess, she is aggressively normal. Her lyrics traffic in clichés but aren’t recklessly gauche enough to qualify as schlock; her arrangements are huge but tidy, prim. She doesn't have the fearless tackiness of Adult Contemporary stalwarts like Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey or, God knows, Streisand. She is, you might say, quite English.
And yet: that voice. On 25, the material is occasionally inspired, sometimes dull, but always serviceable -- and with Adele, that’s enough. Ballads like “Love in the Dark” and “Sweetest Devotion” revisit timeworn themes (of heartache and uplift, respectively); but with Adele’s voice swathed in echo, sounding like she’s wailing beneath the vaults of the planet’s most cavernous cathedral, they hit hard. History teaches us that the power to blow back ears is the power to jerk tears -- and that the pop audience craves catharsis even more than it does a hot dance beat. That’s not about to change: there’s every reason to believe it will be true when Adele actually is long in the tooth, and the title of her new album is 78.