by NICK BUCHANAN
"Hello, it's me..."
With three words, the ashes and rubble remaining from the spontaneous combustion of Adele's career were rekindled, four years removed from the release of the miracle album that blessed her with seven Grammy awards, four multi-Platinum singles in the United States, and 30 million album sales worldwide. Now, enter 25, the album equivalent to an admittedly average freshman entering high school under the ubiquitous shadows of her overachieving older sister who graduated from the same institution the year before. It's clear that Adele understands that 21 was a storm of success that comes only once in a lifetime, but she sure is doing her darnedest to double dip into the pool of popularity.
Take away her commercial success, and Adele is *gasp* no more than your average pop star: four chords per song, lyrics of love and heartbreak, and a well-supported, two-and-a-half octave voice. Since the last time we've heard from her, she has been blessed with a child, a steady relationship, and more fame than she could ever imagine, yet she has somehow ripped away most of her powerhouse climaxes and regressed to more melancholy soundscapes this time around. She nearly teeters along the border of pop and soulful adult contemporary -- an area that can so often be dangerously dull to explore.
Adele herself calls the album a "make-up" companion to 21's "break-up." The emotion is still there, but it seems self-restricted, if not nearly mechanical, to wallow in the same affairs of its predecessor, despite "Hello" seemingly bringing long overdue closure to that chapter last month. The Max Martin-produced "Send My Love (To Your New Lover)" is Adele at her her perkiest, but it seems like one last shot at the man who was already swiftly kicked in the groin over a billion separate times in the past few years: once for each time "Rolling in the Deep" or "Rumour Has It" played on the radio to broadcast his guilt to every breathing creature on the face of the planet.
She further bogs down the album when she throws herself into autopilot mode and croons through some typical, soul-tinged acoustic ballads: "Million Years Ago" plays Lana Del Rey's "loneliness in fame" card -- one of the few off-steps from the thematic redundancy that would be universally slammed if it had been pulled by an artist who hadn't been able to muster 30 million sales of an album in a time of pitiful album sales numbers -- and "Remedy," "All I Ask," and "Million Years Ago" are all color-by-number acoustic ballads that just feel like more of the same -- nameless faces in her discography, if you will. Adele's voice is a powerful weapon when put to use in engaging songwriting -- the problem with some of these songs lies in that last part.
With the record's downfalls set aside, 25 has clear highlights that make the record worthwhile. Again, "Hello" is the proper punctuation mark at the end of her last album's strapping statement. Her voice takes center stage over production that swells in all the right places as she wails, "Hello from the outside / At least I can say that I've tried / To tell you I'm sorry, for breaking your heart / But it don't matter, it clearly doesn't tear you apart anymore." Impending second single "When We Were Young" and sultry standout "River Lea" take the right approach, nailing down nostalgia without saturating themselves with the soggy remorse of the past. Meanwhile, "Sweetest Devotion" asserts itself as the crowning jewel of this album by forgetting the past entirely and focusing on her young son, Angelo. She revels in a love that is guaranteed to last a lifetime, belting over the album's most expansive production: "You will only be eternally / The one that I belong to / The sweetest devotion / Hitting me like an explosion / All of my life, I've been frozen."
Don't be mistaken: 25 isn't a bad record by any stretch of the imagination; there are plenty of pleasing moments to merit a purchase. In fact, many of the record's lowest points are still pleasing to the ear despite being frustratingly underwhelming. Adele's show-stopping voice, which has taken a slightly fuller tone since her vocal cord surgery in 2011, takes center stage throughout, and her lyrics are still masterfully crafted to seem autobiographical while also retaining the malleability for a typical single person to relate them to his own life and passive-aggressively post them on Twitter while eating his way through a gallon of Ben & Jerry's on a Saturday night. The glaring problem, though, is Adele's comfort in safety, crossing all of her Ts and dotting all of those Is precisely -- too precisely, that is -- to follow the blueprints to success. Judging by the outtakes from the album that were co-written and re-recorded by Sia Furler for her own upcoming album, the path towards powerful pop growth wasn't eliminated, but instead just wasn't chosen, which is disappointing.
So in many ways, 25 is that new girl at the high school who must live up to her sister's legacy of being head cheerleader, field commander of the marching band, fan-favorite choir soloist, captain of the tennis and volleyball teams, and class valedictorian. She's a good girl at heart; she's an ordinary student towards whom everyone gravitates due to her charm and outward personality. Yet her biggest fault is that she tries far too hard to be just like her sister, whose standards she'll ultimately, and unfortunately, never supersede. (★★★ out of 5)
25 is out now under XL Recordings. An exclusive deluxe pressing can be found at Target department stores.
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