Review: Adele's 25 is a postcard from the planet's biggest pop star
At its best, this album is personal, nourishing, and warm
Imagine for a minute that you’re Adele: princess of Tottenham, child of MySpace, conqueror of pop charts. Your last album came out almost half a decade ago, when you were just 22. It sold over 30 million copies around the world and won you seven Grammys over two years. Pop fans liked it because the melodies were timeless and the singing was superb. Other people liked it because it suggested a Golden Age since past, one where talent and true feeling ostensibly reigned supreme over visual razzle-dazzle and high-powered production.
You disappear into romance and motherhood, and the hunger for your new material builds until it reaches a fever pitch. You record enough songs to make a new album and no less an authority than Rick Rubin tells you they’re not good enough. By the time you’re finally ready to release new material, you’ve been anointed the latest and best hope for the flailing record industry. Entire listening platforms stand to lose millions of dollars and unquantifiable relevance based on your decision to let people hear your new music through said platforms. No pressure, right?
25 is good enough to sate the thirst of the masses, and it pushes Adele’s music forward on both sonic and personal fronts. It’s the first Adele album to understand her music is fundamentally genreless. Her core isn’t the slippery post-Amy Winehouse folk-soul of 19 — an album that now feels a little like a VCR tape of Michael Jordan playing college basketball or Mark Zuckerberg banging out code in a Harvard dorm room — and it’s not 21’s vengeful, rumbling diva blues. It’s the voice, an instrument possessed of staggering power and greater clarity than ever before. A 2011 vocal surgery targeting a benign polyp and a major shift in Adele’s consumption of cigarettes and red wine has added a few notes to either end of her range, and her dips and leaps into them are smooth and capable. These songs are spotted with cracks, cackles, and growls that feel less like natural imperfections than storytelling tools being wielded by a master.
It's a face-melting, window-busting, signature moment
The highlights on this album are just as piercing and focused as "Someone Like You," and you can make a case they surpass it. They capture transformative moments with the neatness and efficacy of picture frames. An old flame spits a new spark decades after its first heat on Tobias Jesso Jr. co-write "When We Were Young," and its use of "photograph" is just as charming in its anachronism as her infamous "Hello" flip phone. The spare, melancholy "Million Years Ago" captures the deadening impacts of age and fame on a life less lively than it used to be. Even more stunning is "All I Ask," a dispatch from the last night of a relationship that’s gorgeous and harrowing in equal measure. "It matters how this ends," she howls over a piano melody worthy of Streisand or Céline Dion. "Give me a memory I can use." It’s a face-melting, window-busting, signature moment. (You can give Bruno Mars and the Smeezingtons, his songwriting and production partners, some of the credit.)
Adele has spoken about the fear that comes with leaving 21’s scorched-earth relationship vignettes behind. Are people interested in a version of her music that isn’t turning idiot ex-lovers into musical rubble? "I was very conscious not to make 21 again," said the singer in an interview with i-D. "I definitely wasn’t going to write a heartbreak record ‘cause I’m not heartbroken, but I probably won’t be able to better the one I did, so what’s the point?" Leaving that album behind has opened new songwriting avenues, ones Adele uses to explore sex, motherhood, and the idea of home. "I Miss You" is more primal and lusty than anything she’s recorded before, a collaboration with long-time producer Paul Epworth that wouldn’t be out of place on a Bat for Lashes record. ("Treat me soft but touch me cruel," she growls. Scandalous!) Ryan Tedder’s bright, waltzing "Remedy" has the bones of a skyscraping, orchestrated ballad, but it’s even more potent in unadorned form here.
The moments that nod toward the rest of contemporary pop are some of 25’s weakest. Pop godheads Max Martin and Shellback hop behind the wheel for "Send My Love (To Your New Lover)," a buoyant, cheeky pineapple of a song that could’ve been an outtake from Taylor Swift’s 1989. It demands an agility and cool, clean sharpness Adele’s ill-equipped to provide; it feels a little like watching someone trying to cram a book into a Blu-ray player. (I’m sure it’ll be inescapable in a matter of weeks.) Greg Kurstin’s "Water Under the Bridge" is aimed somewhere between Haim and Kelly Clarkson, and it slips away despite a compelling central motif. These songs make sense on the radio right now, but they don’t play to Adele’s unique strengths. No one else on the planet could’ve made "All I Ask"; a half-dozen people could’ve handled the tracks above.
It matters that these songs are good. 25 has an outside chance at selling more copies in its first week of availability than any other album since the dawn of accurate tracking; her record label Columbia is shipping 3.6 million physical copies to retail. Even before it’s actually been released, 25 has achieved the kind of omnipresence that’ll make it part of the fabric of people’s lives, the same way people remember growing up on Rumours or Thriller or Come On Over. Because it’s going to be around for a while, it’s a relief that the album is personal, nourishing, and warm; there are parts of it that are timeless. It’s a postcard from a friend you haven’t seen in a few years, asking if you want to catch up.