There’s an old adage that high expectations always yield some sort of letdown — that disappointment rises from the preliminary acts of prediction and anticipation. Logically, the degree of truth behind this maxim is up for debate. But on a musical level, it has already been invalidated.
With the release of 25, Adele transcends any platitude set forth by the music industry and redefines what it means to fulfill one’s own precedent. For Adele, that precedent is overwhelming in its enormity — her 2011 sophomore album, 21, shattered records across the board, selling 30 million copies worldwide. As a result, Adele had positioned herself at the forefront of the music scene, standing at the intersection of soul and pop.
Since its release, the lovelorn vocals of 21 — or, rather, it’s two biggest singles, “Rolling in the Deep” and “Someone Like You,” are still rebounding off the bedroom walls of the newly broken-hearted, and will probably continue to do so for some time. In times of melancholy, people turn to music for answers and Adele’s vocals on 21 undeniably offer a sense of auditory solace through the stages of heartbreak.
However, in the four years between the fame of 21 and release of 25, Adele grew up. She relinquished her heartbreak and found a new lover, she became a mother and she pushed her music and fame to the sidelines of her life. As if the titles of her albums, 19, 21 and now 25, do not do enough to signify the passage of time, her maturity is nearly palpable within her music.
“Hello from the other side,” Adele sings in 25’s opener “Hello,” a lyric that, in meaning, echoes that of Stevie Nicks’ famous “I climbed a mountain and I turned around.” From its beginning, Adele clearly establishes that this album is about growth and perspective.
Throughout the album, Adele sings as though she’s already over the hill: “I feel like my life is flashing by/And all I can do is watch and cry.” 25 revolves around a coming-of-age theme, and in some sense, Adele exhausts the motif to an extreme. Her personal downfall is her fixation over her own nostalgia. Throughout the album, she wrings out every drop of her past. The titles of tracks “I Miss You,” “When We Were Young” and “Million Years Ago” all point backwards to simpler times, devoid of fame.
“I’m so mad I’m getting old/It makes me reckless,” she sings in “When We Were Young,” which she co-wrote with Canadian musician Tobias Jesso, Jr. Her gritty vocals reflect the sentiment of the lyric, and its meaning is augmented when Adele performs it live. Her hand gestures signal her frustration. The ballad is easily the strongest on the album, nuanced with dynamic background vocals and moments of intense, searing solos.
Adele’s ruminations on the past are not particularly graceful, and err on the side of formulaic excessiveness, but are emotional and raw nonetheless. She is on her knees, begging for the clock to stop — and when listening to the album, it’s hard to refrain from doing the same. The songs will make you want to wipe the dust off of your old school yearbooks and childhood photographs.
Adele’s tendency to wallow for prolonged periods of time is a mark of her emotional authenticity, but in 25 she proves that she can bask in things other than heartbreak and sorrow. In “Send My Love (To Your New Lover),” she showcases her ability to experiment musically. The song is pop at its core, with a catchy acoustic beat. Listeners are struck by its deviance from her traditional torch ballads. Though the song is not particularly representative of her vocal abilities, it is bound to end up as a rhythmic, radio single.
The album covers of 19 and 21 capture Adele with her head down, looking away from the camera. But on the cover of 25, her eyes are open, a pictorial display of her new confidence. This is where the success of the album is located. The warm undertones of the album rise from a place of joy and maturity, particularly from the insights that result from motherhood. “Remedy” is a tender ballad dedicated to her three-year-old son, Angelo, in which she promises him that “no river is too wide or too deep for [her] to swim to [him].” In the closing track, “Sweetest Devotion,” she features a recording of her son mumbling and laughing, and once again promises him unconditional love.
Adele is perhaps the most influential vocalist of her generation — both her belts of strength and her whispers of vulnerability never cease to be breathtaking. In 25, Adele is aware that there is no effective analgesic for lost time, but she also knows that she can be her own medicine if she continues to move in the direction of love and tenderness. Whether or not 25 lives up to 21 seems irrelevant to Adele. Surpassing herself isn’t the goal, however, but growth always is — 25 is a triumph because it arises from her newfound maturity and perspective.