Adele is 27, and she thinks that means she’s old. 25, her third album and the third one she’s named after the age she was when she recorded it, is a piece of music entirely about grown-folks romantic regret, about drowning yourself in your memories and wondering how things might be if she’d made different choices. Again and again, she sings about the way things were when she was young, about some lost innocent era when everything was all right. On “When We Were Young,” she howls about a time “before we realized that we were sad of getting old.” On “Million Years Ago,” she keens, “I feel like my life is flashing by / And all I can do is watch and cry.” “I Miss You” is a six-minute meditation on loss. “River Lea” is about being convinced that there’s something dark in you that will “stain” everyone and everything you touch. On “All I Ask,” she wonders aloud, “What if I never love again?” And it’s like: Adele! You are a baby! When you made these songs, you could only just rent a car! Chill, Adele!
But then, nostalgia isn’t an emotion reserved for people who are actually old. And that “what if I never love” feeling is real. It’s real when you’re 16 and you’ve just been through a shitty breakup, and it’s probably even more real when you’re 86. That’s why Adele has ascended to that once-in-a-generation superstar status. Sales-wise, nobody is fucking with Adele this decade — not Drake, not Beyoncé, not Taylor Swift, not the Frozen soundtrack, not nobody. Adele’s 2011 album 21 did Backstreet Boys/Shania Twain numbers in the downloading age, which is essentially a feat of commercial superheroism. It’s mind-boggling. It’s unheard of. And now 25 seems likely to follow. Partly through canny marketing, partly by filling a void that no other pop star fills, and partly through pure talent, Adele has hit some sort of all-quadrants grand slam just by existing. She doesn’t play the music-industry game — never tours, never records duets, barely surfaces between album releases. And it doesn’t matter. She has captured the emotional core of all of us sad motherfuckers from eight to 80. She is bigger than the music business.
Adele’s absolute commercial dominance doesn’t reflect the quality of the music on 25, necessarily, but it’s worth talking about anyway — partly because it’s fascinating and partly because there’s something weirdly comforting about it. “Someone Like You,” the thunderous heartbreak ballad that ended 21, was like an emotional grenade going off in our collective mass soul. If, say, you were buying snacks and deodorant in CVS one day and the song came on the pissy overhead speakers and turned you into a blubbering wreck (not that this, like, happened to me or anything), you could know that you weren’t alone. Millions upon millions of people were listening to “Someone Like You,” and plenty of them were moved, maybe moved to tears. You might not have been the only one crying in that CVS on that hypothetical day. There was a whole SNL skit about it. It was a thing. And now 25 seems likely to become some similar conduit for mass catharsis. Former Stereogummer Claire Lobenfeld has already published a guide to public crying to 25 in New York.
When Damon Albarn said that Adele was “middle of the road,” he wasn’t just speaking for himself. There are many, many people out there who don’t like the fact that something so obviously safe and edgeless can become the default pop-music option for the entire world. Well, Adele is middle of the road, but that’s not a weakness. It’s a strength — not just commercially but artistically, too. 25 is very much a polished piece of pop music. In its credits, you’ll see the names of industry lifers like Ryan Tedder and Greg Kurstin, as well as lifers-in-the-making like Ariel Rechtshaid and Tobias Jesso Jr. But these guys don’t alter the sound of the album in any appreciable way. This is probably the one time in history when we’ll get to hear a song that Max Martin co-wrote that’s built entirely from an acoustic-guitar figure, a hushed drum patter, and a few magnified handclaps. Everything that could maybe alienate someone has been stripped away — but not because Adele lives in fear of making your mom uncomfortable. Instead, this whole thing points directly toward her voice. Every arrangement is built to showcase that one voice. That’s always the focal point, and nothing else matters. And since Adele’s voice is absolutely fucking spectacular, that’s a good thing.
Adele has this huge but controlled howl. She shows it off, but she never does so gratuitously. She has this rare gift for grabbing your full sympathy even when she’s letting you hear her full firepower. (That’s a country singer’s gift, and I sometimes wonder why country radio never grabbed onto a song like “Don’t You Remember,” from 21.) Sometimes, she constructs her songs American Idol-style, with everything leading up to one final glorious power note — and when she hits that note, as on “When We Were Young,” it can be awe-inspiring. (“My God, this reminds me of when we were yoooooo-uuuuuuuu-OOWWWNG!” People are going to be mangling that at karaoke for years.) More often, though, she doesn’t need to do that because she hits the glory note over and over again. She hits it whenever she launches into the chorus for the first time. And she can convey meaning just in clamping down on the word she wants to emphasize; the way she hits the word “clearly” on monster first single “Hello” is just devastating.
People call Adele a soul singer — there have already been the predictable thinkpieces wondering if she’s appropriating too much from the history of black music — but 25 couldn’t be further from the sound of contemporary R&B. Even 21 had a few bangers here and there; “Rolling In The Deep” was, from certain angles, a hall-of-fame disco howler. 25 doesn’t have anything like that. As the critic Al Shipley pointed out on Twitter, “Hello” is, more or less, a Heart power ballad — a great Heart power ballad at that. It’s not the only one on the album. “I Miss You” is an endlessly unfurling six-minute meditative wailer. “River Lea,” with its funereal organs and its Florence + The Machine-style choir-stomp hook, is one of the least irritating Danger Mouse tracks I’ve heard in years. (Between that and the last A$AP Rocky album, I might have to stop calling Danger Mouse my least favorite producer.) “Million Years Ago” has no instrumentation beyond flamenco-style guitar, and it reminds me of Dusty Springfield’s “Windmills Of Your Mind.” “All I Ask” is a Barbra Streisand-style weeper, on which Adele politely requests one last post-breakup fuck. (At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what’s going on.) Individually, all these choices seem pretty weird. Taken as a whole, they feel massive, inevitable.
25 is, in its way, just as much of a breakup album as 21 was. But 21 was about that raw-nerve moment, that time when everything hurts and there’s nothing you can do about it. 25 is a bit numb in comparison. It’s an album about looking back, years later, and realizing that you’re not over a thing. It’s about regret and paths not taken. That’s a universal feeling, and the album feels universal. But the song on the album that wrecks me the hardest is the only one that couldn’t really be considered a sad song. It’s the last song on the album, batting cleanup in that “Someone Like You” position. (I hope Adele keeps reserving the final spot on her albums for her clearest and most unambiguous triumphs.) “Sweetest Devotion” is a found-love song, not a lost-love song.
Maybe “Sweetest Devotion” is a song about the same person that the album’s other songs are about, and maybe its euphoria is of the “finally we put it back together” variety. But my pet theory is that it’s a song about Adele’s son Angelo, who just turned three. The lyrics don’t all support that hypothesis (“there is something in your loving that breaks down my walls”), but that feeling of all-consuming brain-shattering love is the sort of thing you will hear about if you get a new parent drunk enough some night. (Adele has said that she wrote a whole album about motherhood but that she scrapped it because it was “boring.”) Whatever the subject of the song, though, it’s a fucking stomper. Adele’s voice hits these ecstatic highs while some guitars are doing acoustic-fingerpicking fluttering and others are doing Edge-style ambient soaring, and the whole thing feels like a boulder rolling downhill. I don’t think it’ll happen, but what if “Sweetest Devotion” became this album’s public-sobbing anthem? After all, regret isn’t the only feeling that can completely level you. Joy can do that, too.