Remember a few months ago, when the world was still anxiously wondering when Adele would release new music? It felt like we waited a lifetime, but our prayers were finally answered on October 23, when Adele unleashed “Hello” upon the world. The epic power ballad was not only a beautiful reintroduction to the acclaimed voice of a generation, but it perfectly drummed up excitement for the upcoming album.
Back in the spotlight after two years of complete silence, Adele went on a media blitz, hitting up Saturday Night Live, a BBC special hosted by Graham Norton, and 60 Minutes Australia, as well as appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone. The queen was back to claim her throne.
Adele’s active promotion, coupled with an excellent lead single, meant that expectations for the new album, 25, were astronomically high. Lesser artists might crumble under the scrutiny, but Adele took her time, even scrapping an entire album’s worth of songs that were “too boring,” to ensure that she returned with another winner.
And 25 is a great album. But let’s address the elephant in the room: It’s not as good as 21. Adele’s previous album was a colossal, career-defining moment in time; 25 will unfairly underwhelm if it’s expected to resound in the same way as its predecessor. However, once 25 is divorced from these impossible expectations, it can be enjoyed for what it is: A natural progression in Adele’s sound.
One of the most notable differences between 25 and 21 is the overall tone of the new album. The songs on 21 were infused with inconsolable sorrow; however, Adele vowed not to create the same album this time around. So while sad songs like the cinematic “Love in the Dark” still permeate 25, they don’t heave with the same heavy heartache that made 21 such a global phenomenon — instead, Adele went a different direction on 25.
And while song titles like “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” and “I Miss You,” suggest that this is her car-torching, Waiting to Exhale album, they’re red herrings: Adele sounds much happier on this album. Songs like “Water Under the Bridge” showcase a maturity, a moving-on, if you will. The song is haunting and could have been a bitter lament, but she manages to make it sound uplifting. Furthermore, “Sweetest Devotion” — a song about the joys of being a mother to her new son — triumphantly closes out the album, proving that Adele still sounds amazing, even when she’s happy.
Of course, the album isn’t all change: Most of the songs on 25 are the piano-driven ballads that were Adele’s bread and butter on 21. And most of them are great; for instance, “When We Were Young” twinkles with a beautiful sentimentality reminiscent of “Someone Like You.” However, given the songwriting caliber on board, the results sometimes disappoint: OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, one of the most accomplished songwriters in the business, contributes a standard, paint-by-numbers Adele ballad instead of anything inspired and special on “Remedy.” “All I Ask” is even more disappointing; the Bruno Mars-penned track lacks any of the magic that permeates his own infectious hits. Sadly, these unexpected misfires dull some of 25′s shine.
Likewise, the ballads tend to bleed together due to their sheer abundance. Consequently, the most striking songs are those that deviate the most from the all-familiar Adele sound: “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” has Max Martin’s legendary songwriting and production magic all over it, and it sounds like a pop-era Taylor Swift song (no surprise there since Adele reached out to Martin after hearing his work on Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble”).
“River Lea” is another notable standout, booming with an almost shamanistic vibe, courtesy of Danger Mouse’s production duties. And of course, “Hello” soars like the best ‘80s power ballad this side of a Bonnie Tyler album. Adele will never veer too far from her famous sound, but her calculated risks yield sonic dividends on 25.
Also, despite the shifts in sound, Adele’s voice is consistently fantastic, yet surprisingly restrained, throughout the album. While her voice fully soars on “Hello,” she reigns it in for “Million Years Ago,” to create more of a rainy-Sunday, singer-songwriter vibe. Similarly, “I Miss You” is an understated, jazzy affair that does not resort to vocal melisma to impress. In an era of over-emotive American Idol flash, it’s refreshing to hear such a booming voice so beautifully self-restrained.
Perhaps surprisingly, none of the songs on 25 sound particularly commercial — however, as 21 proved, Adele has the power to redefine the sound of “pop” radio, and there’s no reason to think 25 will be any different. And this commercial re-configuring has already started, as 25 is an out-of-the-box juggernaut: It sold 900,000 copies on iTunes on its first day and it broke an impossible-to-beat record by selling 3.38 million copies in its debut week, obliterating the 2.416 million that former record-holder, N’Sync’s No Strings Attached, sold in 2000.
25 broke similar records in the UK, when its 800,000 one-week total eclipsed the 696,000 that Oasis’ Be Here Now sold in 1997. Suffice to say, the album has been warmly received. And for good reason: After such a long wait, 25 right re-positions Adele back at the top of the pack. It might have been a long wait, but the queen has returned!