ALBUM: 25 ARTIST: Adele
Album release date: November 20, 2015
Fashionably Late & Always In
Back in October of 2015, millions of unsuspecting folk in the United Kingdom were patiently waiting for commercials to wrap up in between segments of the British X Factor. All of a sudden, their screens blinked to black, and a voice – accompanied by no names, dates, or faces – began crooning mournfully into their living rooms: “Hello: it’s me…”
Naturally, the internet proceeded to explode, and everyone and their mother was tweeting about the mysterious, anonymous voice that simply had to belong to one of history’s major artists. Her last album, 21, became the best-selling album in the UK of the millennium: would her come-back be able to match her it? A quick glance at the charts confirms that yes – it would, and then some.
My interest was piqued by the mania surrounding the release of the official video for Hello, the song that had been featured on the teaser. As soon as it was confirmed that Adele was, indeed, releasing a new album – the video being released in tandem with the announcement – the ardor with which people all over the place were professing their devotion to her was surprising (and fascinating). People are so fickle: you disappear for awhile, and they shrug their shoulders like they could do without you. You get resurrected in a flashy way that catches the world’s attention, and suddenly everyone is a martyr for you. As I watched this unfold and noticed headlines out of the corner of my eye reporting the shattering of records on a daily basis, I wondered if perhaps her success was indicative of a genuinely face-melting album that was ushering in a new era, like the massive bolt of volcanism that ushered Big-Foot out on stage-right way back some 65 million years ago. Perhaps it wasn’t just the vapid hurtling forth of the zeitgeist. So, before hopping on a long plane ride to California, I bought the album and gave it a listen.
Full Voice, Half-Hearted Words
As expected, Adele’s beautiful, sweeping vocals are show-cased exquisitely here, and production is flawless. Familiar themes of wistful remembrances of past love, delivered with intense emotion, are carried at times by sparse instrumentation (think grand piano and anthemic, far-away snare drums, and reverberating BGVs); and at other points these lovelorn tunes foray shamelessly into the realm of pop and soul: Send My Love released my inner 13-year-old, and I was transported back in time to evenings of washing dishes while dancing and singing, uninhibited, to Celine Dion’s Falling Into You. (I’m going to refrain from telling you the exact number of times I’ve listened to that song in particular: it’s a little inordinate.) The main instrument, of course, is Adele’s contralto voice: gravelly, yet velvet-smooth, with a certain rough “seen-it-all” weariness to it. Adele’s stunning vocals are what make this album have any weight or distinction in the midst of largely average lyrics and unremarkable power ballads.
A sizeable team of song-writers collaborated to create these songs: but quantity does not always ensure quality. As a whole, the lack of depth and chewable subject matter makes the album feel uncomfortably corporate and processed: one gets the feeling that these hooks, choruses and build-ups were confected mainly to provide a corral for Adele’s voice to gallop around in, and the actual words weren’t the first concern. This is not a set of challenging or insightful songs: they speak of little more than the deliciousness of woundedness, the regrettable fact of our time-and-space bound reality and the irreversibility of time, and sorrow over past mistakes.
Memory and Identity: The Farce of Fame
Yet Adele herself seems pleased with the thematic direction these songs took, based on several interviews, saying they were borne out of the arduous process of growing up and letting go of unnecessary baggage. “You deal with things – you don’t sweep it under the carpet,” she says in one such interview, with her characteristic candor and good humor. “As a parent, I only have so much of a capacity for junk: and I realized that all the things I held on to – good and bad – weren’t that good or that bad; and had to be let go of.” Giving birth to her son made her especially vulnerable, and she recognized the need to go back over her life and identify with what was worth keeping and what wasn’t. Even with this personal experience of growth and maturation being a source of inspiration for the album, Adele seems to maintain a strong desire to keep her intimate life and her public life strictly separate, expressing regret over being emotionally spendthrift when she was younger, as in the case of her (self-described) “miserably depressing” previous release, 21. With that insight in mind, then, it’s safe to assume that 25 is not meant to be either a shocking confession nor a work of staggering brilliance: it is a performance piece, music for music’s sake; an example of control, depth, range, and resilience – mainly as expressed in the human voice, and secondarily as it manifests in the human spirit. While I imagine Adele desires to bring joy and healing to others through her work, I don’t know if she cares obsessively about whether or not her music initiates an encounter with her person. “My music career isn’t my life – it’s my hobby,” she stated in a Rolling Stone piece.
Adele doesn’t strike me as having a particularly artistic temperament: she isn’t precious about her “art”, and doesn’t wax poetic about her brilliance or buckle beneath the sham of fame, which is fleeting. She’s open about the fact that it’s good for her to have people in her life who say “No” to her: her boyfriend, her manager, her child. “If I didn’t have people around to tell me ‘No,’ I’d become a s***-person, and I won’t have that.”
So, perhaps one shouldn’t be looking for lyrical wisdom rife with lessons of self-examination and indicative of an ascent toward greater interior purity, like you might find with Leonard Cohen or Sufjan Stevens, when listening to 25: you’ll not find it with Adele Adkins, an intensely gifted singer from a crime-riddled neighborhood in London who grew up poor but loved, and who’s vocabulary would make even the most grizzled sailor cringe. You’ll find, instead, a young woman with a big voice, a big career, and a gradually waning sense of the invincibility of youth and money.