Adele’s 25 is already the best-selling album of 2015 and ‘Hello’, the record’s lead single, gives her fans exactly what they want – another chest-bursting swell of emotion to file next to ‘Rolling in the Deep’ and ‘Someone Like You’. But Adele’s not just repeating herself and 25 is no typical sequel argues RICHARD S. HE.
Every time Adele releases something new, the music industry spins off its axis. Underground artists, happily commercial popstars, even rappers rush to be the first to put their mark on her work. As if they could. 25, Adele’s first album in four years, is set to have the biggest sales week since the year 2000. At this point, she’s bigger than the music industry. Does it even matter if the record’s any good?
Adele’s so effortlessly likeable that it almost feels wrong to critique her – but there’s plenty to pick at. Her universality is her biggest strength and weakness. Adele’s authentic as hell, but she’s inoffensive. Her often middle-of-the-road songs don’t always do her voice justice. She’s one of the most soulful singers alive, but she’s never been particularly interested in exploring the traditions of soul, gospel, or R&B.
Soul is about giving yourself over to a higher power, whether it’s music, a lover, or god – but Adele is firmly secular. Her songs worship only her voice. 25’s worst moment comes on ‘All I Ask’, a weepier-than-usual Bruno Mars co-write with a jarring, mid-phrase key change. It reminds you of all the schmaltzy adult contemporary clichés Adele usually has the good taste to avoid.
But 25 frequently, if sometimes modestly, pushes the boundaries of what an Adele song can be – even the instantly familiar ‘Hello’ is brave enough to cast the blame on herself. Gone are the generic studio band accompaniments of her past album tracks. Instead, the arrangements are either sharpened, or barely there at all. ‘Million Years Ago’ is a classical guitar lament worthy of Edith Piaf; ‘When We Were Young’, Adele’s own favourite song on the record, invokes both Elton John and ‘60s soul. But ‘Send My Love (To Your New Lover)’, a Max Martin co-write, is the biggest surprise: an honest-to-god pop song with only two chords, vocal hooks galore, and a groove. But then again, why wouldn’t the two biggest hitmakers in the world strike gold? Either way, Adele could stand to loosen up more often.
The German word “vergangenheitsbewältigung“ roughly translates to “the struggle to overcome the negatives of the past”. That’s Adele to a tee. She can’t change the past, but by turning her worst memories into songs, she can at least make something better of them. But like a Pixar movie, Adele songs are never difficult. You can cry to her music, but she always shoulders the burden. On 25, she’s learned to refine her emotions. She’s less overwhelmed, and more in control. She’s not repeating herself, musically or otherwise.
Adele’s as affable and bullshit-free as Jennifer Lawrence
Adele’s become a very different artist, but her ongoing success feels like a second chance. Listening to 21, we suffered with her; as she became a household name, we shared in her joy. If 21 stands for the idea that great art comes from pain, Adele’s public persona, as affable and bullshit-free as Jennifer Lawrence, stands for optimism. Everything will be okay. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. They’re clichés, sure, but Adele’s living them for all of us.
25, then, proves that you don’t need to suffer for your art. It begins by remembering heartbreak, but ends with true unconditional happiness, inspired by experiences as ordinary as motherhood, settling down, forgiveness. It’s as big a step up from 21 as that album was from 19. Adele’s easing into a role she could occupy for decades – both songwriter and balladeer, somewhere between Stevie Nicks and Barbra Streisand. Adele isn’t cool – she transcends it. She’ll never have to chase hits, youthfulness, relevance, fame, or anything else the music industry worships. Adele’s muse isn’t heartbreak. It’s herself.