It’s been awhile since we’ve heard from Adele. Before she released what might be the best Bond theme in history with 2012’s “Skyfall,” her last new album was 2011’s 21 (named for the age at which she wrote the songs). Though only four years–in Adele’s life–separate 21 and her newest, 25, she’s clearly grown a lot since then. For one, she’s given birth to a son, Angelo, with boyfriend Simon Konecki and while motherhood is certainly mentioned within the album’s 11 tracks, it’s her more positive outlook that shows how much she’s matured. Adele became the queen of women scorned and/or heartbroken with tracks like “Rumor Has It” or “Someone Like You” and while there’s still some of that here, these songs are driven by something new: acceptance.
Take the album’s second track, “Send My Love (To Your New Lover).” The upbeat chorus starts with that loaded title, suggesting we’re getting more of the emotional revenge we’ve heard from her before, but then the next line, “treat her better,” brings it in a surprising new direction. Then she goes on to encourage herself and the person she’s talking to to “let go all of our ghosts” because “we both know we ain’t kids no more.”
What’s always made Adele stand out in a pop music landscape that’s increasingly dependent on electronic sounds is her old school musicianship. And I don’t just mean the surprising musical choices she makes throughout, like the urgent drum rhythm of “I Miss You” or the multiple key changes in “All I Ask.” I mean the way she crafts her songs as if she’s telling mini-narratives a few minutes at a time. Perhaps the best example of that is “When We Were Young,” in which she recounts a relationship that, “was just like a movie.” While the lyrics are obviously doing a lot of the storytelling, the music itself is too. It starts low and simple, with just a piano and a bass, but you can hear the energy simmering beneath. It slowly builds as more instruments come in–a tambourine here, drums there–until it finally explodes into full sound after the bridge. It’s pop song construction at its best.
It’s also her voice at its best. That may seem odd to say considering how often she gets a little raspy during it, but that texture is precisely what makes Adele such an important voice (no pun intended) in pop music. Most artists autotune those imperfections out, but the fact that Adele is pushing herself so far that her voice occasionally cracks is why her songs resonate.
The opening track, “Hello,” is probably the best example of that. As the first hit single off this album, it–and its brilliant music video–was the perfect choice to reintroduce the singer to the world. From that first, “hello, it’s me,” when Adele looks straight into the camera, we’re reminded that she’s always been able to cut to the emotional core of a thing. Throughout, the rawness in her voice, the nakedness of the emotion, conveys her desperation and regret. The slight echo effect emphasizes that further. On the one hand, it’s meant to imply distance, both from the person who “never seems to be home” when she calls and from the time when reconciliation still mattered to that person (reportedly her estranged father). But it’s also about the depth of the emotion, as if the regret and sadness she feels is filling some vast space.
“Hello” is such a great song that the rest of the tracks are at risk of disappointing. While there are a number of standouts, the most interesting thing about listening to them is the statement the album makes as a whole. With each track, it moves away from the devastation of that first song toward something more hopeful, as if Adele is getting rid of emotional baggage with each song. It culminates with the thrilling final track, “Sweetest Devotion,” which isn’t a love song in the traditional sense, but an ode to how motherhood has changed her life. Her son Angelo’s voice even appears on the track, similar to the way Blue Ivy did in the final song of Beyoncé’s self-titled masterpiece a few years back.
While 25 isn’t as game-changing as Beyoncé, it’s still a damn fine album. Sonically, it doesn’t depart much from 19 or 21, but Adele’s voice has always been the draw. It doesn’t need changing. Instead, the evolution is personal. 25 is about a woman maturing into adulthood by letting go of past pain and focusing on the joys of the present and future. At this rate, maybe there won’t even be a heart-breaking torch song on the next album. Well, maybe I won’t go that far.