Adele feels old. A chill of mortality wafts through “Hello,” the elegantly epic ballad that reintroduced her to the world a month ago: “It’s no seeecret,” she sings, luxuriating in the vowels that way she always does, “that the both of us are running out of time.” It’s there, too, on the sepia-toned torch song “When We Were Young,” a vocal performance she delivers with the go-for-broke pathos of a late-career Judy Garland. Even on the most upbeat song on the 27-year-old’s new album, “Send My Love (To Your New Lover),” she saucily wags a finger at an ex as though it’s a ticking second hand: “We both know we ain’t kids no more."
Premature nostalgia is a natural part of anybody’s 20s (or even adolescence; check the elegies scrawled in the back of your high-school yearbook), but on her third full-length, Adele sounds particularly preoccupied with it. All of this backwards glancing places her not only at odds with her YOLO-crazed, living-for-the-moment contemporaries (take a second to consider that Adele is seven years younger than Beyoncé, four years younger than Katy Perry, two years younger than Drake, and three months younger than Rihanna), but with a larger culture in a current state of arrested development, when with each passing year we seem to be upping the age that it’s socially acceptable to still be living in our parents’ proverbial basement. Something about Adele’s fixation on fleeting youth is striking, and perhaps anachronistic. Although it has all the poise, ennui, and emotional intelligence of someone deep into her golden years, her new album, 25, takes its name from the age that psychologists recently deemed, for her generation, at least, the end of adolescence.
Of course, this has always been part of Adele’s appeal, for the millions and millions and millions of people who buy her records: She provides a living, breathing link to a (seemingly) more glamorous past. Her smash hits “Rolling in the Deep” and “Rumor Has It” married the aesthetic of '60s soul and girl groups with the more modern, kick-the-door-down 'tude of, say, Alabama Shakes front woman Brittany Howard. And, of course, universal tearjerker “Someone Like You” is one of those rare songs on which the word timeless is not wasted; I can plausibly imagine someone singing it a century in either direction from now. Adele’s songs, and her ballads in particular, have unimpeachable aplomb. But when you watch her in any interview, or listen to her expletive-laden stage banter, she is — very charmingly — not like that at all. There’s an unvarnished quality to Adele’s personality that her music (sometimes tepid, sometimes transcendent) rarely captures. It was there in flashes on the blockbuster-selling 21, especially on the more upbeat songs, but too-often-unadventurous arrangements dampened Adele’s fiery talent. What a gorgeous, wrenching song “Don’t You Remember” is — and how profoundly marred it is by acoustic-guitar-kissed production, which tames it into Starbucks background music. After 21, nobody was denying that Adele was one of her generation’s best singers. But the great artistic hope that still beckoned was that one day she might find the kind of production and arrangements to match the grit of her voice.
On 25, Adele’s made an attempt to shake things up by working with some new collaborators. She co-wrote “When We Were Young” with indie newcomer Tobias Jesso Jr., whom she reportedly reached out to because she was a fan of his song “Hollywood.” Bruno Mars assisted with the showstopping diva’s anthem “All I Ask,” and Danger Mouse helped her channel “Sealine Woman”–era Nina Simone on the haunting “River Lea.” Even pop-radio whisperers Max Martin and Shellback show up, for the playful, inevitable smash “Send My Love (To Your New Lover).” The variety of collaborators and production styles makes 25 a more dynamic and ultimately satisfying listen from front to back than its predecessor, even if no single song quite matches the pair of modern classics that bookended 21. A few come pretty damn close, though.
As just about everyone on the planet now knows (400 million Vevo viewers can’t be wrong!), “Hello” is a great song. It’s just cheeky and clever enough to recapture our attention after Adele’s prolonged absence (“Hello … it’s me”), but there’s also a gorgeous simplicity and spaciousness about it, the chorus ringing out with a crisp, mountainous echo — it’s what the Ricola guy would sing at his American Idol audition. “All I Ask,” too, is a jaw-dropper, complete with an acrobatic key-change that showcases a new upper range Adele says she didn’t even possess before her 2011 throat surgery. The cavernous, serpentine “I Miss You” isn’t one of the record’s catchiest songs, but it is one of the most commendably adventurous, and also the most sensual song Adele has ever recorded (“Treat me soft, but touch me cruel / I wanna teach you things you never knew”). But, even though it’s a surefire hit, 25’s greatest artistic risk is the wonderful “Send My Love (To Your New Lover),” because, for once on an Adele record, it eschews the aesthetic comfort of the past and dares to live in the present. Legend has it that Adele sought out Max Martin after she heard his work on Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble,” and here he performs a similar trick, staying true to the artist’s signature quirks but streamlining them into something you can actually imagine listening to on a beach. “Send My Love” is also a convenient piece of evidence to cite in arguments with people who insist that Adele is inherently “above” all other players in the pop game, like Swift and Perry. Regardless of their vocal prowess, they all dial the same number when they want a monster radio hit.
These moments when 25 steps ever so slightly out of Adele’s wheelhouse, though, make its more conservative songs that much more disappointing. The snoozy, stuffy piano ballads like “Remedy” and “Love in the Dark” feel like missed opportunities for further evolution. We’ve heard them before. The forlorn acoustic-guitar number “Million Years Ago” fares better, though, perhaps because it feels so emotionally candid. The song tells uncomfortable truths about the isolation of fame, and Adele’s performance here is particularly wrenching: “When I walk around all of the streets where I grew up and found my feet,” she sings, her voice breaking, “They can’t look me in the eye / It’s like they’re scared of me.”
When “Hello” first came out, some people rolled their eyes at the fact that Adele — now a mother in a stable, long-term relationship — was still milking her past heartbreak for new material. But 25 is full of very relatable confessions that she is the sort of person who has trouble accepting happiness at face value, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. “If you’re gonna let me down, let me down gently,” she sings on “Water Under the Bridge,” a love song as trepidatious as it is joyful. She plumbs deeper on “River Lea”: “Sometimes I feel lonely in the arms of your touch / But I know that’s just me 'cause nothing ever is enough.” These hesitations only make the final song, the twangy, soulful “Sweetest Devotion,” feel like that much more of a celebration. She’s finally letting all the light come pouring in, through a hole she blew through her own roof with that chorus. Her gale-force delivery is enough to make you forgive a lyric as clumsy as “the sweetest devotion / hit me like an explosion.” This is the sleight of hand performed by Adele’s music at its most powerful — vulnerability blared loud enough to become unquestionable strength.
“Everybody tells me that it’s 'bout time that I moved on,” Adele sings on “River Lea,” “And I need to learn to lighten up and learn how to be young.” Fair enough, but 25 is a kind of sonic boast that she has no interest in doing any of those things — and because it doesn’t stray too far from her old soul’s comfort zone, it’s poised to be one of the most commercially successful records of the decade, if not more. Adele’s aged gracefully, if predictably, from 21 to 25. But God, one of these days, how I’d love to hear her pull a Benjamin Button.