It’s the event we’ve all been hydrating for. Adele’s new album has arrived, and we’re all here, ready and waiting to weep and ugly cry and send our broken hearts hurtling through our throats as we shout along to some big ol’ torch ballads.
The release of 25, the sainted pop diva’s first new album in five years, is a strange one.
Culture has already ruled it brilliant without even hearing it. This review is almost a fruitless exercise. Everyone already knows the album is good; in their minds it’s life-changing, transcendent, aural euphoria. If we said otherwise, I’m not sure anyone would believe us. They certainly wouldn’t care.
Typically, frenzied anticipation and a din of buzz dooms a pop megastar, with the follow-up to the artist’s defining album almost always failing to live up to the pre-release hype. Lady Gaga’s Artpop and Katy Perry’s Prism certainly speak to that. But then here comes Adele, and, more importantly, Adele’s voice.
“Hello,” the first single from the album, was delivered straight from that sepia-toned windy forest where Adele lives—a land where years-long obsession over an ex is not creepy, but relatable—to break sales and streaming records. Its rapturous reception forecasted the tunnel-vision enthusiasm 25 would be met with.
We were there for her coy confessions whispered over soft piano twinkles, eventually giving way to her lion’s roar of heartbreak. We had missed slobbering over a pint of Ben & Jerry’s while gazing stoically at the fire we set to our ex-boyfriends’ possessions, watching the flames dance over old photos as Adele sings in the background.
Maybe we’ve matured a bit in the years since 21. And Adele has, too.
She’ll be channeling our emotions about forgiveness and nostalgia and new responsibilities on 25. In return, we’re going to turn 25 into the biggest hit the record industry has seen in years. And we’re going to love the songs, if only because of how much we’ve convinced ourselves that we need them.
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. As it happens, matters of the heart are Adele’s specialty, and our big, fond hearts have been clamoring for her to break them, and mend them, and soar along with some more of her famous booming piano ballads.
It’s with wry self-awareness that the first line on the album, from “Hello,” has Adele singing, “Hello, it’s me / I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet.” YES ADELE DUH WE’VE BEEN WAITING FOR YOU ALL THIS TIME. Not only have we been yearning for more of her music, we’ve essentially booked her a place in the pop music landscape as we waited for her return.
Things have changed in the years since. Taylor Swift does pop music. Beyoncé is grittier than ever. Justin Bieber is making good songs. But though the sound of the industry has evolved, the space held vacant for Adele remained fixed. Just serve us the same magic, Adele.
“Hello,” in that regard, is a savvy bridge between the stark and spare emotion of 21 and the uneven and often ambitious complexities that come to define 25.
“Send My Love (To Your New Lover),” produced by master of the pop earworm Max Martin, for example, is Adele by way of Taylor Swift. The sunny bounce of the kiss-off track nearly betrays the authenticity of emotion that is Adele’s trademark. If Adele is sad, the piano keys and her vibrato are veritable music sobs. If she’s pissed, the rage in her voice conjures a thrilling swell.
The flirty sass of “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” is in refreshing contrast to its message, because in 25, Adele is no longer purely sad and angry about former loves. She’s accepted the heartbreak, and she’s optimistic about the future. “I’m giving you up / I’ve forgiven it all / You set me free (oh),” she sings, practically blowing a kiss over her shoulder as she rides the song’s irresistible staccato beat into the future.
If there’s competition for which song from 25 is going to be the biggest hit, it’s between “Send My Love” and “When We Were Young,” a soaring ballad soaked with nostalgia.
Listen closely and you can already hear the song playing at high school graduations across the country. But that’s not who it’s for. It’s for us—those of us who had the fun, who grew up, and who know that you can never go back. Adele is singing as we look at life in the rearview mirror, tearing up about the past as we drive forward.
Adele’ favorite lyric (as told to USA Today) is also mine. And it will be yours: “You look like a movie, you sound like a song / My God this reminds me of when we were young.”
The lyric is an AIM status, a quote in a MySpace profile, a scribbling from a friend in a high school yearbook who signed, “K.I.T.” (keep in touch), but then never did. It’s really difficult to capture wistfulness without coming off as trite, or a jackass. But of course Adele pulls it off.
There’s a theatricality to much of 25, which actually makes quite a bit of sense. While most pop songs are developed around hooks, chants, and catchy choruses, Adele’s style has always been to tell a story. Soft introductions crescendo into blaring, outsized emotions.
“All I Ask,” her collaboration with Bruno Mars, could very well be the 11th-hour torch song or emotional climax of a Broadway musical. If you’re listening to 25 with the intent to cry, we suggest you skip to this one.
“All I ask is if this is my last night with you / Hold me like I’m more than just a friend / Give me a memory I can use / Take me by the hand,” she sings. And then, she belts the question: “What if I never love again?” Adele! You’re killing us.
But for the loudness of Adele’s emotions, 25 isn’t histrionic—remarkable considering the teenage diary nature of lines like “What if I never love again?” It’s because of the calm in her voice. She’s belting, sure, but she’s steady. It’s how she gives such clarity and acuteness to such wild emotions so that they affect us all so deeply.
She’s composed singing through the pain on “I Miss You,” a song that’s filled with so much yearning that it’s the musical version of a thriller. “Remedy” and “Million Years Ago” are classic Adele songs: an intense voice over sparse arrangement.
“Million Years Ago,” again, deals with the passage of time, and the anxiety that comes with that. “I feel like my life is flashing by / And all I can do is watch and cry,” she sings. “Life was a party to be thrown / But that was a million years ago.”
On “Love in the Dark,” we meet a wiser Adele, one forced to come to peace with the realization that love isn’t enough to save a relationship. “It means the world to me / That you are in my life,” she sings. “But I want to live / And not just survive.”
In that regard, 25 is very much about Adele finding her own agency. She’s no longer the victim of heartbreak, but someone who used the rawness of her pain to find closure. Now that she’s found it, she’s moving on—while, like we all do, still looking back, and still learning.
But if 25 charts any kind of journey, it comes to a fitting climax at “Sweetest Devotion.” It’s a song about her child. It perfectly encapsulates her relationship to motherhood while also echoing the greater themes of the album.
When the song begins, the voice of Adele’s son, Angelo, is heard. There’s an anxious buildup driving the lines right before the chorus—“I wasn’t ready then / I’m ready now,” she sings—leading to a burst of optimism as she lets her epiphany rip: “The sweeeeeeeetest devotion / Hitting me like an explosion.”
For an artist so often tied to, well, tears, it sends a clear message to have her much-anticipated new album end on a note of unbridled joy.
Hey, Adele’s back. We’re happy, too.