The rule of 25 has dawned: on November 20, 2015, Adele released her third album. The music industry had been preparing, as artists rushed to release their latest projects before 25 eclipsed them all. All eyes and ears were on Adele, who was competing against an even more formidable foe: herself. Her previous LP 21 set expectations high, selling over eleven million copies and spawning three number-one singles in the United States. Fans wondered whether 25 could match that unprecedented success.
In response, Adele comes out swinging. 25 bears an emotional richness that has only grown since 21 took the world by storm. In contrast to her previous work, Adele locks eyes with her listeners from the album’s cover. The image is powerful, vulnerable, and daring, and her new music reflects that as well. She strikes an impressive balance between giving fans what they love and exploring new territory; 25 features Adele’s signature emotional and vocal power filtered through a more mature artistic voice.
Track after track, the singer finds new emotional and musical recesses to explore. From kiss-offs to love songs, pop to flamenco, 25 boasts a diversity and variety that brings Adele to exciting creative heights. By presenting listeners with such distinct themes and genres, she paints a more vivid and surprising picture of herself at 25. She begins with a central point from which her personal and musical journey deviates:
Adele pulls no punches with the album opener. Lead single Hello brought the singer straight to the top, skyrocketing to number one in almost every country. Although talking to a lost lover, Adele seems to be addressing her listeners in the opening lines: “Hello, it’s me,” she sings, greeting her audience after four years. The first verse reads:
Hello, it’s me, I was wondering
If after all these years you’d like to meet to go over everything
They say that time’s supposed to heal, yeah
But I ain’t done much healing
We understand from the outset that 25 is not about triumph and resolution. Adele’s wounds have not closed, and the singer finds herself far from bliss. She sings in the chorus, “Hello from the other side,” suggesting that the riff between herself and her lover has grown too large to cross. The song not only mourns a lost love but also accepts that the relationship will forever go without closure. At 25, Adele understands that not everything in life ends cleanly.
With one song, Adele removes any doubt that she can live up to expectations. Hello has already been perched atop the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States for longer than any of her singles off of 21. The ballad represents Adele at her best: strong, booming, and heartbroken. Her beautiful voice against a simple, elegant backbeat has the mark of an instant classic. Myriad parodies affirm the song’s tight grasp on the music industry and, in the case of Saturday Night Live, its ability to transcend even familial disputes with its beauty.
Send My Love (To Your New Lover)
Adele follows her smash single with—and I am hedging my bets here—another monster hit. To follow the heavy and emotional Hello, she opts for something lighter on the ears, as Send My Love ventures into a realm never traversed by her former LP: bona fide, unadulterated pop.
Producers Max Martin and Shellback, the musical minds behind P!nk and Taylor Swift, helped deliver this radio-friendly pop-bop. And as with any Martin-Shellback collaboration, the song boasts an infectious chorus that will dominate the radio.
But the number is also reflective of Adele’s personal growth. She wants her former flame to “treat” the new lover “better” and admits, “We gotta let go of all of our ghosts / We both know we ain’t kids no more,” an indicator of Adele’s maturity.
Although Send My Love is poised to conquer, Martin and Shellback fail to rise to Adele’s level. She coolly dominates the track in a manner so relaxed that the song lacks the attitude and energy that the production duo brought out in Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off and Ariana Grande’s Problem. But that will not stop anyone from playing it on repeat.
I Miss You
Having taken a detour into pop, Adele tunes her listeners back into her more familiar aesthetic. I Miss You is a mid-tempo, sultry piece. The song sonically echoes Hello, with Adele emotively belting over an unobtrusive, thumping beat. Unlike her contemporaries, Adele needs not rely on the production of her music to dazzle her audience. She knows what makes her listeners keep hitting “buy:” huge notes and raw emotions.
When We Were Young
Adele debuted the live version of When We Were Young before releasing 25. With her amazing vocal control, the audio could have easily come from the studio. The song is a big, beautiful ballad dedicated to a lost lover. It thematically echoes what she has presented to her listeners thus far: retrospect, nostalgia, and honesty. She sings on the chorus: “It was just like a movie. It was just like a song, when we were young.”
The song speaks to the haunting truth that life, like a movie or a song, passes before us. Adele beautifully and artfully expresses her grief over the fleeting nature of youth, inviting listeners of all ages to join her in nostalgia. Whereas most songs on the radio keep their content light, Adele unapologetically tackles large and heavy themes. She strives not to create the world’s next club anthem but rather music that will resonate with listeners throughout time.
Yet the song will no doubt find great success on the charts. Adele has selected When We Were Young as the second single off the LP–and with good reason. Although less bold and confident than Hello, When We Were Young finds beauty in subtlety and reflection. The song is one of the most honest cuts from the album, as Adele sings with emphasis, “Oh, I’m so mad I’m getting old, it makes me reckless” as the number closes.
At one point, Adele thought that 25 would never come to fruition. Scary, isn’t it? Her early sessions with songwriting powerhouse Ryan Tedder, lead singer of One Republic, never resulted in something she thought worth sending to radio. One remnant of that partnership made it onto 25.
A stripped-down piano ballad, Remedy sounds like a One Republic song, which may be why Adele sought another direction. Yet the collaboration between Adele and Tedder shines for its simplicity and effortless grace. Remedy is the first pure love song of the album; Adele sings, “No river is too wide or too deep for me to swim to you.” Proms and weddings across the world have found their new anthem.
Water Under the Bridge
Adele gets her groove on with Water Under the Bridge. Quick beats, handclaps, and yodeling in the background make for an eccentric and intoxicating number. The song manages to be both huge and restrained, to be heavy and fun. Listeners beware: Once this song gets stuck in your head, it will not leave easily.
She has vowed to swim across a river on Remedy. She proclaimed that a former love is not “water under the bridge.” With River Lea, the water metaphor has gotten old.
Adele seems to be striving for a more alternative aesthetic on this song. With its eerie production, the result is mildly reminiscent of Lykke Li. Yet in contrast to several successful crossovers, River Lea falls flat. Adele’s voice takes on a strange affect in the verses, and, besides acknowledging her “roots,” the song contributes little to the thematic story of the album.
Love in the Dark
With Love in the Dark, Adele returns to her forte: booming ballads. The song synthesizes the themes Adele has presented this far. Lamenting that she is “oceans apart” from her lover echoes the distance she feels in Hello. Acknowledging “everything changing” recalls When We Were Young. The song takes isolation and nostalgia and concludes in sadness, as Adele cries, “I don’t think you can save me.” Save her from what? Only the rest of the album holds the answer.
Million Years Ago
Million Years Ago finds Adele at her most personal and vulnerable. Unlike the preceding songs, there is no second person in the lyrics: Adele is confessing her own woes. She serenades everything for which she feels nostalgia:
I miss the air, I miss my friends
I miss my mother; I miss it when
Life was a party to be thrown
But that was a million years ago
The flamenco-infused production helps convey Adele’s acceptance that she has forever exited a chapter of her life: the guitars definitively strum as Adele cries, “but that was a million years ago.” Although the song is thematically cohesive with the rest of the album, it represents Adele’s painful and decisive acceptance that the past is forever in the distance. The “Most Likely to Make You Cry” award has been claimed.
All I Ask
Adele enlists the help of industry titan Bruno Mars on her penultimate track. The result sounds like it has been taken straight from the Broadway stage. She continues to touch listeners with her vulnerability, asking, “What if I never love again?”
For her closing number, Adele brings in her three-year-old son, whose voice is heard on the opening. 25 does not include any guest vocals from other artists, making the addition of her son all the more special and intimate. Sweetest Devotion features some of Adele’s most powerful notes on the album. Undercurrents of bluegrass meshed with soul give Adele’s sound a unique flavor. Ending her LP with a new sound and the “sweetest” love demonstrates the perpetuity of her growth since 21. Adele may not live in bliss, but her ability to navigate change and sadness has helped her become one of the greats.
Having won over millions of fans with 21, Adele has earned the right to disregard the trends of today and explore music beyond her niche. The result, though not without its flaws, is a victory. 25 gives its audience the esteemed privilege of being party to Adele’s most intimate and heartfelt reflections while delivering some of the most beautiful, transcendent music of our time. At 25, Adele stares life straight in the face and contends with the painful reality of what she sees. As her listeners, we experience the world with her.
Image Credit: Flickr/The Coincidental Dandy