Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
The fact that Adele titles her albums based on the ages she was when they were made is somewhat ironic, because the music on them always seems like the work of someone impossibly mature and self-aware for such tender years. No 19-year-old could possibly sound so world-weary as she did on “Chasing Pavements,” right? And how could any 21-year-old have access to the bottomless well of emotions that she spilled forth on “Someone Like You?”
Just a look at the song titles on her new album 25 should let you know that her old-soul outlook is still running rampant: “When We Were Young,” “Water Under The Bridge,” and “Million Years Ago” are the most obvious examples. And her lyrics sometimes make it seem like 25 would have been more accurately titled 52. She’s “running out of time” on “Hello,” or telling an ex that “we ain’t kids no more” on “Send My Love (To Your New Lover.)” On “River Lea,” her lost-in-retrospection narrator even admits that she has to “lighten up and learn how to be young.”
The genius of Adele, and the best moments of 25 have this genius on full display, is that the heightened moments that come to the fore in her songs, where she’s always on the precipice of breaking up or breaking down or rising above it all, are actually the staples of youth, when perspective is hard to come by and everything means everything. Yet she conveys these moments with such old-soul wisdom and insight, and, of course, with that ceaselessly stirring voice, that it manages to touch hearts of every age bracket. She’s got all the bases covered, which is why 21 sold a gazillion records and 25 is likely to do pretty brisk business as well.
The natural tendency after an album as monumental as 21 would be to try a change of pace the next time around to avoid comparisons, and, according to various reports of scrapped songwriting and recording sessions in the four-year span between albums, it seems she almost went down that road. Yet the finished product here seems like an attempt to up the ante on the drama and showstopping that permeated 21.
When the songs are just right, that’s a great thing. “Water Under The Bridge,” one of the few songs here with a backbeat that wouldn’t be best described as “staggering,” finds Adele fighting with inspiring gusto to sustain a fractious relationship. “Love In The Dark” takes the opposite approach, as the narrator realizes that the love is spent and it’s time to bail. There are lyrical clichés that need to be overcome in this track (as there are throughout the album), which Adele’s clever phrasing manages to do, and when she sings, “I want to live and not just survive,” the air is pierced with the force of her conviction and it’s believable in the best way.
25 can seem like 11 singles instead of an album at times; all the big-name producers and co-songwriters muscling their way in doesn’t allow for too much restraint. And, save for atmospheric curve balls like “I Miss You” and “River Lea”, the piano ballad is pretty much the fallback option here, so don’t come expecting a lot of musical diversity.
But what’s wrong with a piano ballad? Well, Adele honestly can’t do much with the forced uplift of “Remedy,” but she salvages the Bruno Mars co-write “All I Ask” by embracing the song’s Barry Manilow-worthy bombast instead of shrinking from it. And then there’s “When We Were Young,” which captures that specific, exquisite kind of sadness that occurs when you see a former flame unexpectedly and has the best chance of having that “Someone Like You” kind of effect, making you mist up in spite of your jaded self.
It’s nigh impossible to listen to 25 without playing compare and contrast to 21, but Adele deserves a fair shake considering that she’s carrying the hopes of an entire industry on her back, at least until Taylor or Beyonce get cracking again. Expectations like that could make anyone seem old beyond their years. Since Adele has seemed right at home with that outlook since she first uncorked one of those chill-inducing crescendo notes, 25 turns out to be another very good year.