Let’s begin, if we may, with the album that ‘25’ isn’t. A year or so ago, Adele junked the vast majority of what would have been her third record. Under advice from renowned producer Rick Rubin, the material was discarded as not up to scratch and the process began again. Having now heard the rather pragmatic end result, it’s tempting to speculate about which direction those rejected songs had taken. What we’ve got is a record designed to keep the 30 million or so owners of ‘21’ placated. The unexpected impact of that stellar album casts an almost unimaginable shadow and it can’t be easy trying to be decisive about how you follow it up. Noel Gallagher’s response involve submerged cars, painfully elongated songs and a distinct absence of bass. For Adele, there’s far less folly involved.
Revisiting ‘19’ now, it’s striking how underplayed the whole thing is. The still bewitching ‘Hometown Glory’ is a perfect example of the simple majesty of Adele’s early music, while her cover of ‘Make You Feel My Love’ feels remarkably unadorned once you’ve sat through the multi-tracked choruses and numerous backing vocals with which ‘25’ is liberally plastered. Even when this album does do sparse with lead single ‘Hello’, there’s still a point perfectly crafted for a burst of pyrotechnics as it all goes calculatingly ‘big’. It doesn’t stop it being a beautiful song but the stadium syrup does get fatiguing over the 11 songs.
‘Send My Love (To Your New Love)’ is a humourless, colourless misstep that sends up a warning flare early on. A supposedly final shot fired at the source of all the heartbreak that made ‘21’ so compelling, although you could be forgiven for disagreeing after hearing all of ‘25’, it hops around on a playful beat before going M.I.Adele on the chorus. Producer Max Martin’s chart smash credentials are admirably extensive, having dished up a little stardust on some of Taylor Swift and Britney’s finer moments, but here it’s an ill fit. It not only manages to dim the impact of that remarkable voice but also reeks of enforced jollity. For all of the lyrical power, the music is insipid and generic.
Which is not to say that the forays into the new, thin on the ground though they are, prove entirely unsuccessful. The album’s highlight is the exquisite ‘Million Years Ago’, which frames reflections on how her fame hasn’t so much changed her as the people around her - “when I walk around the streets where I grew up and found my feet / They can’t look me in the eye / It’s like they’re scared of me” – within the confines of a vintage acoustic jazz ballad. It is, by some distance, the finest vocal performance on ‘25’ and a reminder why this record is arriving with such expectation.
‘River Lea’ emerges enigmatically from drawn out organ notes, Danger Mouse’s input evident from the submerged bluesy wash of sound. Possessing some of the darker, subterranean qualities that established Adele in the first place, it’s a natural and compelling evolution of her sound and features an enthrallingly controlled delivery of nostalgic lyrics.
Elsewhere, ‘All I Ask’ is practically designed to be belted out in the semi-finals of some faceless talent show by the favourite, all emotive key changes and elongated vowels. Just try humming it after you’ve played it. Good luck with that. By contrast, ‘Water Under The Bridge’ is in possession of a monster chorus and manages to tread the epic/anodyne line with skill. Despite following the well-worn protective parent trope, there is a resonant sincerity to ‘Remedy’ that is all the more enjoyable for its simple piano accompaniment.
It’s hard to imagine a single potential purchaser of ‘25’ waiting on a review before making their decision, such is the ubiquity of ‘21’ and the clamour around this release. It is that unmeasurable safety blanket, however, that restricts this album’s power. Whether consciously or not, the majority of these 11 songs remain close to what has gone before, the fear of meddling with a beloved recipe precipitating a reluctance to risk a Creme Egg scale debacle. Unfortunately, altered or not, the saccharine ooze is all too evident here. These are mostly decent songs but the lyrical landscape feels wearily well-trodden and it’s hard not to just want a bit more from an artist with the freedom to risk anything. Nobody is crying out for a ‘Rudebox’, but three albums in seems a little too early to run out of ideas.
Words: Gareth James