Adele’s ’25’: Album Review

Patrick Bowman | November 20, 2015 9:38 am

“But, what happens when you’re happy?” That’s the question any artist has to face after creating career-defining music in the wake of personal and emotional ruin. “Happy” doesn’t have a lot of depth. There isn’t much room for exploration or growth with “happy.” And, most importantly, “happy” doesn’t lead to catharsis. For Adele, whose sophomore album 21 was one of the greatest breakup records ever made, selling 30 million copies worldwide and turning every third person you’ve ever met into an Adele fan, being “happy” is like boxing with one arm tied behind her back. Looking back to 21, it was practically all catharsis. Famously inspired by the dissolution of what everybody can assume was a one hell of a relationship, the searing confessions, rage and unleashed vocal performances of tracks like “Rolling In The Deep,” “Someone Like You” and “Set Fire To The Rain” were basically pop music blood-lettings. The full tonnage of raw feeling roiling around on that album wasn’t very nuanced, but it was deep, and it provided Adele with focus and allowed her to work with what felt like a lifetime’s worth of experience (for a 21-year-old).

But she returns today () with 25, an album written after the catharsis and in the midst of what appears to be a settled happiness in her life, both personally and professionally. In order, following the release of her last album, she became the most famous singer in the world, fell in love and had a child. If there was ever a recipe for becoming complacent creatively, this was it. But, as she said in a recent profile with Rolling Stone, things in her life have happened quickly and, occasionally, out of her control. Happiness has a habit of fogging up any clear sense of direction, diffusing anxieties into many different forms, making you question how you got to that point. And while it might seem like the edge that made her best songs sting even harder was getting duller as she moved further and further from the hurt of 21, the existential weight of adulthood, of motherhood, of being her own person while so many people want so much from her fuels the songwriting and performances on 25.

This is all immediately evident on bombastic debut single and album opener “Hello,” as Adele pivots slightly from her most famous work without losing track of what makes her her. Yes, the voice is as strong as ever (the song quakes under her power), and it’s composed and written like it’s destined to become a vocal standard, but this time, she’s no longer the jilted victim, self-righteous and angry. She’s reflecting on who she’s hurt, and how she’s had to face herself after doing so. “When We Were Young,” the swelling ballad produced by indie rock svengali Ariel Rechtshaid and co-written by throwback singer-songwriter Tobias Jesso Jr., lays out the album’s fascination with nostalgia and how it’s creeping up on her quickly: “You look like a movie/ You sound like a song / My God this reminds me / Of when we were young.”

And while her music has always felt a bit timeless and outside the usual lineup of pop music megastars, focusing regularly on bluesy and jazzy moods, sprinkled with balladeer’s drama, she’s also finding time to confidently test out newer styles, such as the Max Martin-assisted up-tempo kiss-off “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” and the soulful, hushed disco-pop of “Water Under The Bridge.” Both songs deal with exes, but again, Adele isn’t writhing in pain; she’s in control, watching time pass and letting the memories of pain fade away, shading the edges of the song with melancholy. “I Miss You,” produced by frequent collaborator Paul Epworth, is probably her most modern sounding song to date, purring with dark synth undercurrents, cavernous production and (gasp!) a rhythm section that includes a drum kit. The song is sultry and pitch black, but has Adele opening up about how vulnerable she feels in the face of new love, for good reason, ultimately resigning to the fact that she’ll never feel safe, and that’s okay: “I miss you when the lights go out / It illuminates all of my doubts…We place all love into the dark / ‘Cause we are living worlds apart / It only makes it harder baby / It only makes it harder baby.”

25 doesn’t have the rush of palpably unfiltered emotions that graced 21 from start to finish, which both gave the album its power and focus but also limited its scope. 25 is about your next life rushing in to fill the void of your damaged past life, and how that’s thrilling, comforting and terrifying in equal measure. The fact that Adele ends the album with a track titled “Sweetest Devotion” which sounds like it has a choir of angels on backup vocal duty, and is pretty much an ode to everyone and everything she loves in her life, is an exciting and beautiful exclamation point on a record that does a lot of searching and ruminating on her new life. She’s happy, yes, but she’s asking herself “How did I get here?” and “What’s next?”

Idolator Score: 4.5/5

Patrick Bowman