XL, 2015


REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


The arrival of Adele’s third album in 2015 was an event, coming four years after the mega-multi-platinum smash 21 and its massive hit singles and Grammys. It was one of those albums that was destined to succeed before anyone had heard a note simply because of its predecessor, much like Michael Jackson’s Bad or the Eagles’ Hotel California or whatever Taylor Swift releases after 1989. So reviewing it is almost pointless; even as I write this, the disc and lead single “Hello” are already nominated for several Grammies and tons of copies have been sold.

But when the dust clears, this will not be remembered as a great album. It will be remembered as a good album by a great singer who, unsure of what direction to go next, decided (along with her collaborators) to stick to a formula that works.

One would think that the changes in Adele’s personal life – new baby, happy relationship, fame – would have yielded a new approach to the lyrics and songwriting, but this is not the case. Song after song on 25 is a dirge about heartbreak, lost love, and moving on, all territory mined on my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 21 but with emotional heft and catharsis set to catchy music. About halfway through the album, when yet another slow piano-led ballad comes through, you start to wish for an electric guitar, or a Max Martin-written beat as on “Rumour Has It,” or a cowbell, or something to break up the monotony.

When the lyrics shift from retreading heartbreak to a more universal paean to growing older, letting go of an old self and an old way of thinking, they come alive. Likewise, when the music breaks free of 21-part-two and finds new dimensions in the sound, the album shows what it could have been. “River Lea” is the best song here in that regard, a booming, echo-heavy piece as mighty as a rushing waterway, thanks in part to Danger Mouse’s production. The sprightly Martin-written “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” is playful and modern. Adele’s voice is full of gravity and a twinge of regret as she hiccups the title, followed by “We both know we ain’t kids no more.”

“Million Years Ago” ditches the piano for an acoustic guitar and some European folk, at home in a dusky French café at Adele’s voice reaches its lowest ebb in the verse before shifting up to its normal timbre in the emotional chorus. It’s very well sung and heartfelt, Adele sounding at least 30 years older than the titular age when she wrote this song but it is ultimately completely honest and authentic. It’s the flip side of the calculated ballad “When We Were Young,” which is a bit overdone, the most “let’s recapture the magic and write a song with commercial aspirations instead of artistic ones in mind” moment here.

Of course, “Hello” is the juggernaut, thrown up front at the pole position to remind listeners of Adele’s singing prowess, and though it is yet another lost love/sad breakup piece, it’s a reminder that well-written songs sung with power and conviction can do just as well on the charts as crazed EDM pieces co-written by four people and nine producers. It will probably clean up at the Grammys in 2017.

But if nothing else, Adele remains a singular talent in today’s pop music scene. It’s no stretch to say she has the greatest singing voice of her generation, and she sings the hell out of her third album. But she has said all she needs to say about heartbreak, her ex, moving on, and all of that. It’s time she found (or wrote) a batch of songs that do justice to that voice instead of retreading past glories to only sporadically necessary results.

Rating: B-

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