Adele '25' Album Review: Junk Mail
Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Carolyn Menyes, Ryan Middleton, John Gonzalez and Lindsay Haddox chat about Adele's new album, 25.
Carolyn Menyes: What is there to say about Adele that hasn't already been said? I certainly can't think of anything... she really is that sort of one-of-a-kind talent. After nearly five years of waiting and an album promotional cycle that seemed so incredibly short, her new album25 has finally arrived.
Much like 21, Adele plays to her strengths on her third studio album, pumping out big, bombastic ballads that were just made to help you cry away these upcoming winter days. That pattern was pretty much clear when the lead single "Hello" dropped last month. The rest of the album, more or less, falls in that pattern, with simple piano backings and strings accompanying Adele's voice. And, the result is effective and emotional.
How did you guys react to this record?
John Gonzalez: I have to hand it to Adele, few people can do what she's done. Taking an extended hiatus, dropping an album that sits right outside the realm of today's popular music and still shattering records!? Unheard of. What I love most about 25 is that while it's not a "pop album," it makes all the right references to one. From the Taylor Swift feel on "Send My Love (To Your New Lover)", to the Fifty Shades of Grey vibes of "I Miss You," it's a perfect contradiction from an artist famous for her unwillingness to compromise her sound.
It plays much like her first two albums, with some of the quirk of 19 and the emotion of 21. The sense of nostalgia is overwhelming on 25, from "When We Were Young" to "Million Years Ago," it's obvious that success hit Adele fast and hard, and she's just now coping with it. Overall I felt it was a strong effort, even though I felt myself expecting more from both Bruno Mars and Danger Mouse's contributions. "Water Under The Bridge" was an easy standout for me.
Lindsay Haddox: After shattering records with 21, is it that much of a surprise that Adele came back even stronger on her new album? Even if you aren't an Adele fan, you are an Adele fan. For someone who lives so much of her life in privacy it is great to get a glimpse into her life again with her latest album.
Like John said, she definitely took qualities from her last two albums for this one, which gives us the Adele we all know and love. However, the difference between 25 and her last two album is the maturity that you hear from her all around. Gone is the full break-up album that is 21 and here we have who Adele is now, a mother that is in a great relationship and you can hear that in her music.
I'm not saying it isn't full of emotion, because one listen to "Sweetest Devotion" and you get all sorts of feels from hearing her son in the beginning. But that's just it Adele is allowing us to see more than the relationships she has been through and is now letting us see the inside of her life she has lived since 21's crazy success and how she has grown as a person and is reflecting at her life at the ripe old age of 27.
Ryan Middleton: People have been waiting a long time for this one and Adele is back. She exists in her own lane within music. She isn't really pop in the traditional sense, but she is among the most popular artists in the world. My probably jammed out to 21 for 2 years after it came out (and maybe a little more after) and that album created her superstar that she struggled to deal with. 25 shows some growth personally with some of those weepy, breakup ballads left behind for the younger Adele and more satisfied and content woman now writing and singing music. Obviously her voice sounds amazing on those piano ballads, but other tracks like "Send My Love" and "Water Under The Bridge" are when things get really interesting for me and change things up in an exciting way.
How did you guys feel about the non-piano ballads?
CM: I wasn't sure what an Adele/Max Martin collaboration would bring, but I'm glad it's "Send My Love (To Your New Lover)." This song has the sort of biting lyrical edge of "Rolling in the Deep," but it has this fun acoustic guitar twist. I think the hook in the chorus is totally infectious, too. You just can't help but get it stuck in your head in all of the right ways.
And, does "River Lea" count as a piano ballad? Haha. It starts off with a big ol' church organ, but I also think it has this sort of sauciness in Adele's performance that isn't totally different that "Send My Love." This is also something a little lyrically different from Adele, it's not so much about her broken heart or love, it's about who she is inherently as a person and growing up next to, well, the River Lea.
But, those piano ballads are still Adele's best work. How many times have you all listened to "When We Were Young" by now? My answer is about 100. It's such a universal song and her vocal on it is flawless. I'm 100 percent obsessed.
JG: Yeah I've run "When We Were Young" into the ground already; it is truly is universal. To be honest, I would have loved more non-piano ballads. I mean, it's her lane and where she excels, but when you consider how brilliant "Send My Love" is, and how awesome "Rumour Has It" was from 21, can't blame me for wanting more of those. Which is why I go back to my earlier gripe about Bruno Mars and Danger Mouse. While their contributions were brilliant, when compared their back catalogues I think they could have pushed Adele so much more musically. "River Lea" was cool but it was a bit sleepy, and "All I Ask" was a standard piano-ballad affair.
Thematically I have to applaud her for finding a new and relatable focal point. Often times when artist becomes this big off heartbreak records, fans aren't very forgiving when they then make happy music. Adele gets a pass because while 25 is neither sad nor overtly happy, it's still honest. And who right now in their 20s isn't feel that same wave of nostalgia? The sense of, "How did I get here? Where did the years go?" is so relatable.
LH: So speaking of non-piano ballads, I wanted to bring up "Million Years Ago" which is one of my favorite songs on the record. It's not extremely upbeat but is an interesting sounding song. Adele has brought up how she has felt about Amy Winehouse and I feel like this song pays a lot of tribute to her. Also, it's not a break up song and is more about her reflecting on life and a song that her audience can really relate to.
Another non-piano ballad is the last song on the Target edition, "Why Do You Love Me?" Adele has been able to find a great love with Simon Konecki that she is not shy speaking about, which I feel pays a lot of tribute to this song and the rest of her album. Adele is happy and you can hear that in even some of the piano ballad songs. Someone like Adele is able to make an album that is not overly sad or happy because she creates a feeling for an audience can relate to and in reality life isn't all about falling in love and out of it. There are nitty-gritty parts of life and Adele is able to capture those moments of her life in 25, which makes her so easy to relate to.
What I feel really makes Adele different from other artists is that her record is purely her, no
collaborations/features. Adele could get anyone on her record, like who does not want to be on Adele's record and instead she just does whatever she wants. You can tell that Adele isn't making a record for others she makes it for herself and that's why she can take the time off that she wants because when she comes back, boy does she deliver.
RM: I think it is an important point to make that the bar is set so high for Adele. With her projected sales set to break records and the standard she has set, people expect the very best of the best and that isn't unfair. She has been able to be a music icon without having to suffer from the trappings of fame that can be the downfall of so many pop stars. It is a quite remarkable achievement.
The Max Martin & Shellback track is one of the more lively cuts from the album and helps to introduce the listener to the fact that this won't be another breakup album. "I Miss You" could also be put into that non-piano ballad category, though her voice carries as well as it does on any of the 25 songs.
She does still address some painful moments in her past, which makes this authentic, as opposed to a total about face, which would be difficult to digest.
One of the more interesting tracks to me is the final non-bonus track "Sweetest Devotion," which has a distinctly American country feel to it, whereas on the rest of her records the Brit in Adele is quite present.
CM: It's interesting that you think "Sweetest Devotion" has an American feel to it, because it comes from Adele's handy collaborator Paul Epworth, who we all know from "Rolling in the Deep." It's a nice cap off to this album, sort of ending the chapter of Adele's age trilogy. She's happy now, after experiencing heartbreak and a sense of being lost. Finally, I think that song is pretty interesting, because as you mentioned Lindsay, it starts off with a little cameo from Adele's son. This (and the Target bonus track "Why Do You Love Me") feel like the leftovers from Adele's scrapped version of 25, which was all about motherhood. Frankly, I am glad she went in this direction. A "mommy album," as Carrie Underwood has called that sort of record, is rarely very interesting. Look at Kelly Clarkson's Piece by Piece for that. Plus, Adele's voice sort of lends itself to a sadness.
Do you guys have any gripes with this record? Was it worth a five year wait? I know one of you said it was a little piano heavy, but that doesn't bother me. I sort of think this record is flawless. Adele's voice is better than ever, her songwriting is pensive and relatable and she can still throw out a good hook. I'm a happy girl!
JG: I think all and all this is the best album we could have all expected from Adele. Five years' worth of hype and pressure isn't easy to live up to and she really held her own. That short promotion run really helped her because it gave us less time to create our own expectations.
I will say that there was an obvious focus on pushing her voice and emphasizing that sadness in it that you mentioned Carolyn, which is what made the piano ballads feel a lot heavier than maybe they needed to. I know she mentioned her vocal range expanded after her throat surgery and pregnancy, so I guess that's something they wanted to highlight.
I did notice the American feel of "Sweet Devotion" that you mentioned Ryan, but I also picked up on some "Ray Of Light"-era Madonna feels too in its opening strings. Adele did mention that that album became one of her go-to when studying other famous mom's post-baby projects. I also think bonus track "Why Do You Love Me" is great and should have been on the standard edition, I love than ambient Americana feel that The Alabama Shakes have made popular and it fits her voice well.
LH: I agree with John, after five years of being pretty absent from the music scene she gave us the best album she could. When it comes to any artist following up an album that is so critically acclaimed it can be hard. I can see why she needed so long to create her latest album and to choose a path to go down. We also can't forget that shortly after 21's success Adele got pregnant and not only was becoming one of the world's biggest super-stars but also was becoming a mother. In so few years her life has become so different and though you certainly do get a few love ballads on 25, you also get a more mature Adele, which we have discussed.
I can definitely say that I have enjoyed everything about Adele's newest album and I am not disappointed by any of it. We get a bit of the Adele we have grown to love and even more.
RM: Yeah five years is a long time, though this year did see a return from New Order that has been heralded as one of their best and Sleater-Kinney that was excellent, who hadn't put out a record in 10 years.
She did talk about suffering from writers block and have a lot of sessions with Ryan Tedder that didn't turn out much, beyond the ballad "Remedy."
She has always been quite open and honest, but I like in "Million Years Ago" it is a different type of candid as she laments what fame has done to her life and how it changed her relationships with those closest to her including her mother. For someone who has managed her rise so well, it is nice to see her vent a little.
RM: Adele is going to shatter records with 25. In a world where melodic math and a few teams write most of the top 40 right now, it is great to have the authenticity of Adele back on top. This is why her star power really shines through and people latch onto her voice and story. Welcome back Adele -- we have missed you
LH: When Adele delivers you cannot expect anything less than well perfection. After being gone for some time it is great to hear her again and I really hope she doesn't take this amount of time off before her next album. She is authentic and someone pretty much anyone can relate to. At the end of the day Adele can do no wrong.
JG: Few people would have managed to follow-up a project like 21 with this much critical acclaim and praise. What has made Adele such an anomaly is her ability to balance her level of fame and success with an unparalleled amount of privacy regarding her personal life and family. It has allowed her to take the extended break she's taken and still come back with a project that is personal and intimate. 25, like her first two projects, it's an honest snapshot of her life right now and people can really relate. She understands who she is as a musician, which is evident in her ability to navigate a collaboration with someone like Max Martin and still come out the other end sounding like herself.
CM: Adele is back in full force on 25, and it's welcome. While she stuck mainly to her strengths and roots, it was nice to see her experiment with some new sounds on something like "Send My Love" and the classically rooted "Million Years Ago." But, we still get those big ol' ballads that will stand the test of time. "Hello," indeed.