Monday, November 23, 2015

Album Review: Adele - 25

It might be hyperbole, but only slightly, to say that Adele is one of two people keeping the entire music industry afloat. Much like Taylor Swift last year, Adele's return to music has the unmistakable air of an event, and not just another album release. She has the power to capture the attention of every facet of the media, and score adulation from communities that would otherwise have nothing to tie them together. Adele is, in a way, a musical evangelist, spreading the message that popular music can be great music, and that talent can win out over image. "21" proved that point, scoring massive sales and huge hits, all on the back of Adele's massive voice, and her sharp songwriting. If she was inescapable before, she is omnipresent now, as that success has only gathered more momentum as we approach her first new album in four years. A break like that is often the death of a pop star, but that only proves how disposable those who hide behind their image are. True talent can wait, and the people will be there when they return.

Our first exposure to this new material opens the album. "Hello" is Adele at her undeniable best. The dramatic swells rise and fall with her vocals, which sound fresh after the years away. Few singers have that much raw power, but Adele has on top of that the ability to throw her personality into her voice, which gives her a leg up on even the most impressive talent-show belter. "Hello" is a masterful song, the kind of composition and performance that I had thought was extinct on the charts.

Proving we aren't in for a formulaic affair, what follows is "Send My Love (To Your New Lover)", a mash-up of plucked nylon guitar notes and fluttering percussion. It's a song that springs from the mind of a noted pop producer, and for that very reason it sounds like everything else he's had his hands on. That fact alone makes it the lowest point on the album. The song is a rehash of the charts, and the composition sounds like it was written for those manufactured stars, with a melody that doesn't allow Adele to ever get out of first gear. It's a remedial song from someone capable of masterworks, and is completely out of place here. It's going to be released as a single, and it's going to be a smash, but that doesn't make it a great song. "Water Under The Bridge" is a better stab at a modern pop sound, with less focus on the rhythm, and a melody that would work even without Adele's voice on it.

Adele shines on the songs that give her ample room to showcase her voice. Her writing is what puts her over the top, but that voice is what defines her music. No one else can match her power, control, and tone, and when she allows the songs to serve her voice, rather than take the lead, the results are every bit as amazing as you would expect. "When We Were Young" proves that simple is sometimes better, as the tempered arrangement not only puts Adele's voice at the forefront, but gives every note of the melody room to cut through. It's a powerhouse of a song.

"Remedy" is a lovely torch song, and one that is built around a piano figure that reminds me of a little known Neal Morse song called "The Change". That's a nice little nugget for me, but I'm well aware it's a coincidence. "River Lea" is also strong, but the best of the second half of the record is clearly "Million Years Ago", another simple song that is just Adele and a lone guitar. Her melody writing seems strongest when given the most room to explore, and these kinds of simple arrangements fit her like a glove. It's not easy to make simple music that can stand up to scrutiny, but a song like this absolutely can.

"25" is a more adventurous record than might seem apparent at first glance. There are hints of enough styles in here to keep it from playing things too safe, and it deviates from what "21" did in a few important ways, which makes it clear this is its own record, and not just a second dose of what Adele already knows works. Since this is her music, it's going to still sound like her, but "25" is a softer, more subdued record. She doesn't use her power as often this time around, which does show she has total control over her voice, but it also leaves the record feeling a bit wanting for big moments.

But the biggest issue is that there isn't anything here that can replicate the passion of "Rolling In The Deep" or "Set Fire to The Rain". "Hello" is fantastic, but that's as much tempo and fire as the album ever dips into. For a song or two, the more introspective approach works wonders, but over the course of an entire album, the attitude begins to grate. "25" is still a very good record, and it shows important growth for Adele as both a person and an artist, but it doesn't have as many highlights as "21", nor the consistency. I like "25", and Adele is still the best thing on the pop charts, but the time between records has allowed "21" to build a reputation that not even Adele could overcome.

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