It’s the biggest event in pop this year, and probably next year, too: the release of Adele’s third album, 25. Its predecessor, 2011’s 21, sold a whopping 30 million records worldwide, and was crowned the UK’s best-selling LP of the millennium (and second ever – The Beatles’s Sgt Pepper the only album-proper to have sold more).
In an era where people don’t buy records anymore, 25 appears to be 21’s only conceivable competition for that title for some time, if indeed ever. The hype was monumental. It will sell by the bucketload whatever it sounds like. But should it? I scrambled this first-listen review from a hotel lobby…
Things begin, really quite sensibly, with record-smashing first single Hello – which clocked an incredible 27 million views within 24 hours of release (now 425 million and counting). The way those mournful piano chords build into that searing, soaring climax and powerhouse vocal workout holds up a sense of drama on repeated listens. An impressive return for sure – but three years gone by since last single Skyfall, it really needed to be.
Send My Love (To Your New Love)
Is there a hint of Ed Sheeran to the muted, acoustic guitar riff driving this bouncy pop nugget? Send My Love falls into that classic pop tradition of transforming a turn-down into a lover’s rebuke. Despite the verse’s nodding strut, there’s something slightly flimsy and shallow in the quiet-loud structure, probably the main contribution of guest super-producer Max Martin. “We both know we’re ain’t kids no more,” she sings. “I forgive it all – you set me free.” A sentiment shared by a zillion broken hearts the world over.
I Miss You
Driven by off-kilter drums, a stricken organ and reverb-stacked backing vocals, I Miss You slits comfortably into the post-Ronson retro soul bracket. Smart production work from Paul Epworth pushes Adele to delve deep and channel the inner Winehouse – recently revealed to be a huge influence on the singer. A definite highlight likely to reward repeated listens.
When We Were Young
“You look like a movie, you sound like a song,” bellows Adele, on the first of many tender, rousing piano moments. If it sounds like an artist on autopilot, the destination remains the same – fragilely affecting, but ultimately affirming. This is what Adele pedals so well – an ample example of the songwriter’s gifts.
Keep the hankies out for this Ryan Tedder co-write. Adele’s in solo piano mode for perhaps her most earnest expression of devotion to date. It’s hard to resist the bone-chilling vocal delivery – as she pledges to be her lover’s Remedy for most of the world’s woes – but by now the record’s slow pace is starting to drag ever-so-slightly.
Water Under the Bridge
Here we go: a beat, a groove, and a huge melodramatic chorus with pummelling reverb-laden drums straight from a 1980s power-ballad. A pop sing-along which sacrifices none of Adele’s trademarked intimacy, this would make a smart choice for the album’s second single. Although it would appear that four years on – now happily coupled up with a three-year-old son – Adele is still banging on about the same ex which fuelled 21. It was heartbreaking, I’m sure – but time is the greatest healer.
“Everybody tells me it’s time I moved on, I need to learn to lighten up and learn to be young,” begins Adele, in the half-spoken intro, a confessin’ seventies soul-stress, over a swelling, Southern organ. But what threatened to shine soon dissipates into mid-tempo plodding electro, of the Ellie Goulding variety, courtesy of producer Dangermouse. Adele’s fate (sadness) can he blamed on the titular river, we’re told – either a weak dramatic device, or a hideous assault on some poor soul called Lea.
Love in the Dark
We hope you’ve got some tissues left for this – you guessed it – mournful piano ballad. “This is never ending, we’ve been here before,” she sings. Indeed – you went on about your ex for all of 21, and half this album to boot. “I’m being cruel to be kind,” she says, before the shrill strings kick in. If that’s an apology for whatever the guy went through from being royally roasted in front of 30 million listeners on 21, then game on.
Million Years Ago
What’s this? An acoustic guitar? Million Years Ago is a delight, precisely because it pushes its singer out of the tried and trodden. Over a jazzy, Autumn Leaves-inspired chord sequence, Adele offers a broken confession which benefits from the smaller, intimate production. She actually sounds on the edge of tears in the first chorus. “I’m not the only one, who regrets the things I’ve done – I wish I could live a little more,” she cries. And I believe her.
All I Ask
Tidy, fast piano patterns drive this datedly derivative ballad, which recalls Celine Dion, Whitney Houston and a host of 1990s singers. There’s something weirdly detached about the sentiment and delivery – it may be no coincidence that a total of four writers were enlisted, including, oddly, Bruno Mars. Despite the hearty whiff of a karaoke-classic-in-waiting – big key-change and all – All I Ask certainly doesn’t sound like Adele.
Save the biggest for last – after a short verse Sweetest Devotion erupts into a rousing, gospel-tinged chorus, before taking a country-ish, rock radio pounce and building into a stadium-ready outro. It shimmers with studio time, but there’s something sadly by-numbers in the production and writing. Adele’s gift is sounding like Adele, and no one else, yet her powers feel slightly dimmed by this identikit approach.
Is 25 better than 21? It’s more mature, for sure – but it was always Adele’s post-adolescent damaged fragility which seduced listeners by the million in the first place. It will take time to see how 25 holds up as a meaningful statement on an artist’s internal journey – what next, 28? 31? – but what’s already clear is that there’s no Rolling in the Deep to be found here.