WHAT DID your version of twenty-one look like? Whatever dorm room, dive bar, or lecture hall you spent it in, it probably looked nothing like Adele Laurie Blue Adkins’ version of 21. As one of the preeminent vocal talents of her generation, Adele’s early twenties consisted of sold-out Wembley shows and one half of an EGOT. This astronomical success reveals the paradox in the naming scheme for Adele’s trilogy of albums. On the one hand, Adele’s quarter-life crisis has been nothing like the rest of ours. Yet, for all of her fame, the emotional cruxes of Adele’s songwriting—every heartbreak a hurricane, every missed call a melodrama—remain a point of crucial commonality. She knows what you’re going through, she feels your feels. Adele is a beautiful contradiction—a working-class diva, a populist superstar—and her music is rightly a source of comfort and solace for millions of devoted fans.
Let’s get two things straight about Adele’s long-awaited third record 25—the production is immaculate and more importantly, the vocal delivery is absolutely unparalleled. Seriously—the doctor who operated on Adele’s vocal chords deserves a mountain of praise. Her voice has never sounded richer on the low notes on “River Lea” and more soaring on those high belts in the chorus of “Sweetest Devotion”. But here’s the quibble with 25—it’s safe, chaste, and unchallenging. 25 is like the pint of vanilla ice cream into which so many Adele listeners have gratuitously poured their tears—familiar and comforting, but ultimately a little bland.
Take the record-breaking first single “Hello” for example—perhaps you’ve heard it? It’s a soaring anthem to a crumbling relationship—Adele’s wheelhouse if she ever had one—but beyond her vocal performance, how good of a song is it? How much of its success can be attributed purely to the fact that audiences (and the record industry) are just so grateful to hear Adele’s voice again? “Hello” has two modes—a somewhat dull, serene verse and a visceral, volcanic chorus, the latter of which gets repeated ad infinitum to the point of parody. Adele elevates the entire song with her caterwaul of a delivery, but it takes more than a great voice to make a great pop album.
“Hello” is ultimately symptomatic of the larger issue that makes 25 disappointing. Much of pop music can be judged across a spectrum. On one far end, you have hooky, engaging music with largely interchangeable and nondescript singers—the Demi Lovatos, the Selena Gomezes—pleasurable earworms that could easily be inhabited by any number of the pop/R&B divas currently dominating the airwaves. Somewhere in the middle, that sweet radio nirvana, you have the ideal combination of edgy, thought-provoking, and immensely enjoyable pop combined with a dynamite vocal personality—think Beyoncé or Adele’s own “Rolling in the Deep”. And then on the other end, you have bland songwriting elevated to a higher level by impressive singers—much of Bruno Mars’ catalog or pretty much anything Sam Smith has ever sung that wasn’t written by Disclosure. “Hello” is a prime example of this second extreme, as is much of the rest of 25.
The Smeezingtons-penned “All I Ask” and Ryan Tedder’s “Remedy” make for flavorless piano pop that wouldn’t be of much consequence if it weren’t for Adele’s glorious performances. On “I Miss You” and “River Lea”, Adele tries to channel some of the noir foreboding of Beyonce’s “Haunted” and the thunderous mysticism of Florence Welch, but the results are ultimately more atmosphere than substance. The album’s most truly surprising moment is second track “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)”. If its vocal swoops and teen-bop beat sound strikingly similar to Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, that resemblance can likely be attributed to the songwriting credits from Max Martin and Shellback. It’s the album’s breeziest number and also its most off-putting, almost as if you want to take Adele aside and tell her, “c’mon, you’re better than that.”
Rest assured, there are certainly moments when 25 hits that point of transcendent emotion and soaring songcraft that has served Adele well in her still-young career. “When We Were Young” is essentially “Someone Like You Part II,” but there’s nothing wrong with that. The Tobias Jesso-penned ballad is the high point of the entire album and one of the best pop songs of the year—a slow-burning, profoundly moving and heartbreaking number that shows off Adele’s dazzling vocal range. Sure, it will score a million Shondaland montages, but you’d need to have a heart of stone to not feel something. Elsewhere, “Million Years Ago”, a song that revisits Adele’s well-worn theme of hometown glory and falling out of touch with loved ones, is a sweet acoustic ballad that sticks out because of its relative restraint. It’s understated—a low-rent production focusing on the bare bones of Adele’s voice and the hooky melody—but it’s also one of 25’s finest offerings.
25 is not a bad album, nor is it an excellent one—it’s just good, that’s all. Given her towering accomplishments, Adele doesn’t need to do much more than gift listeners with the glory of her magnificent voice. 25 will sell millions of copies, and it should—Adele is immensely talented and Lord knows the record industry could use a pre-holiday adrenaline needle to the chest, Pulp Fiction-style. But at the same time, it’s hard not to wish that Adele had tried something a little darker, a little more unexpected, a little funkier. For all of the tempestuous emotions swirling about between Adele’s well-enunciated vocals, 25 is disappointingly safe. The record has a louder, bolder sound, but that could perhaps just be attributed to the post-Kanye, Bhasker-ificiation of pop music. From a sonic perspective, Adele has essentially written the same album three times. She’s a legend in the making and an auditory comfort food, but I can’t help but hope that the next time around, Adele throws me for a loop. B