Listening to the music of Adele, one wonders if her heart is always in flux. If it always swells and feels such deep emotions. She pours herself into every track, how does the singer have anything for the next composition? Case in point, the British-born artist’s 2016 single, “When We Were Young,” features the vocalist’s signature heartfelt writing, singing, and emotional outpouring. She’s torrential.
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Released as a studio recording on January 22, on Adele’s 2016 album, 25, the track was the second single from the monumental LP. The lyrics of “When We Were Young,” which was co-written with Canadian songwriter Tobias Jesso Jr., laments the passage of time and “getting older,” wishing for a photograph to remember a past love in a certain, nostalgic, beautiful light. The soulful ballad, of course, features Adele’s powerful, sweeping vocals.
The lyrics to the song are ubiquitous in the way general lyrics can be but these words are made bountiful by the emotive quality of Adele’s planetary-sized singing voice. We feel deeply, each one of us, so we resonate with how Adele feels and expresses that depth.
Everybody loves the things you do / From the way you talk / To the way you move / Everybody here is watching you / ‘Cause you feel like home / You’re like a dream come true.
Famously, for the writing of 25, which was Adele’s third LP, the artist struggled with writer’s block. She consulted famed producer Rick Rubin, whom she’d worked with on her second LP, 21, for advice. He explained he thought the material she had at the time was too weak for her standards and she bagged the songs. To begin the process again, she flew to L.A. One of the people she met was Jesso Jr.
Adele was a fan of Jesso Jr. after hearing his song “Hollywood.” She later tweeted a link to his video, “How Could You Babe.” Together, the two wrote a great deal, Jesso Jr. recalled to NME: “There was no studio, just a piano and us, and we wrote a lot. I mean a lot.” With the songs in the bag, Adele flew back to London and worked with producer Ariel Rechtshaid on two of the tracks.
He later flew back to La-La Land and began “chipping away at a rhythm track for it,” as he told The Fader: “It was difficult—with a piano ballad, it’s hard to put together a rhythm track that isn’t over-the-top dramatic, kind of epic.”
Rechtshaid added: “The song has an old soul vibe to it, but I wanted to keep it a little bit more modern. The song kind of feels like a lot of different vignettes, reflecting on different times in your life and different people, so all these instruments—bass, drums, piano—felt like other characters.”
Lastly, he said, when Adele heard the finished track, “there was definitely a little bit of tearing up.”
Let me photograph you in this light / In case it is the last time / That we might be exactly like we were / Before we realized / We were scared of getting old / It made us restless / It was just like a movie / It was just like a song, she sings in the chorus.
The song debuted on November 16, 2015, on the Australian TV show 60 Minutes. The live performance at London’s Church Studios was released on YouTube a day later. On December 12, Billboard confirmed it was the next single on 25 and the song was released on Italian radio stations on January 22, 2016, and worldwide on February 5. She performed the track on November 22 on Saturday Night Live.
Adele shared the meaning behind the lyrics with SiriusXM, saying: “[It] was based on us being older, and being at a party at this house, and seeing everyone that you’ve ever fallen out with, everyone that you’ve ever loved, everyone that you’ve never loved, and stuff like that, where you can’t find the time to be in each other’s lives. And you’re all thrown together at this party when you’re like 50, and it doesn’t matter and you have so much fun and you feel like you’re 15 again. So that’s the kind of vibe of it really.”
Later she told The New York Times: “At rehearsal, when I was singing ‘When We Were Young,’ I suddenly had a vision of my best friend putting makeup on me for the first time when I was 17. I had never had that vision when I wrote the song. Every time a new memory comes back in one of my songs for myself, I love it. It’s like remembering your life through song.”
The track, which peaked at No. 14 on Billboard Hot 100, remains on of Adele’s most beloved tracks. For anyone who has thought about the loss of loved ones, the fade of relationships or just the perils of getting older, it’s a song to bask in and remember that even someone as famous as Adele knows how you feel.