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Adele returns with safe, nostalgic ’25’

| Monday, November 23, 2015

Adele_Graphic_WebLucy Du | The Observer

The Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant coined the term “imperial phase” to refer to the period in the late ‘80s when the synthpop group was at the height of its influence. A pop act’s imperial phase is not just about immense commercial success; as pop critic Tom Ewing explained in 2010, it requires “a level of public interest, excitement and goodwill towards your work.” It’s the usually brief moment in an artist’s career when they can seemingly do no wrong in the eyes of the public.

It’s a concept that immediately comes to mind when discussing Adele, the British singer-songwriter who became an almost universally-beloved icon with “21,” her blockbuster second album. In the supposedly fragmented music landscape of the digital era, “21” became an 11-times-platinum behemoth that spawned three No. 1 singles and won seven Grammys. But what truly cemented Adele as an artist in the midst of her imperial phase was the public admiration for the album, especially its two world-conquering singles: the bluesy barnburner “Rolling in the Deep” and the heartfelt ballad “Someone Like You.” Hers is breakup music brimming with pathos and people talk fawningly about its power to evoke emotion — see the “SNL” sketch in which “Someone Like You” brings an entire office to tears.

So intense was the anticipation for Adele’s follow-up “25,” that it seems likely she could have released a noise album and it would have been a massive hit. Indeed, the album is on track to break the one-week sales record and is expected to sell upwards of 2.5 million copies in the U.S. alone this week. Yet, with the album’s success preordained, I can’t help but wish she would have taken advantage of the freedom afforded by her imperial phase to take a few more risks. Much of “25” retreads the same sonic territory as “21” — piano ballads and lush hymns — and nothing quite rises to level of the scorned stomp of “Rolling in the Deep.” It’s a safe, pleasant enough album that reinforces her place as a pop music icon.

All three of Adele’s records have been named after different ages in her life, but “25” is the first on which age is an explicit theme. While “21” was about coping with the pain of recent heartbreak, much of “25” is about reminiscing and longing for youth. This nostalgic melodrama begins with “Hello,” framed as an apology to someone she hurt long ago. “I’m in California dreaming about who we used to be / When we were younger and free,” she sings wistfully over sparse piano chords on the track’s first verse. Equally nostalgic is the Elton-esque ballad “When We Were Young,” co-written with Canadian sad-sack Tobias Jesso Jr. — Adele sounds especially world-weary on its chorus: “That we might be exactly like we were before we realized / We were sad of getting old, it made us restless.” On the flamenco-tinged “Million Years Ago,” she laments, “I miss it when life was a party to be thrown / But that was a million years ago.”

This nostalgic bent makes sense considering Adele is somewhat of a pop classicist at heart; her music has always harkened back to torch singers of the past. She expands her circle of collaborators slightly on “25,” but even her more offbeat picks — such as Ariel Rechtshaid, who produced great left-field pop albums by Haim and Sky Ferreira — turn in songs that fit squarely in her wheelhouse. Perhaps the biggest curveball is the breezy kiss-off “Send My Love (To Your New Lover),” which has Swedish pop maestros Max Martin & Shellback — who co-produced Taylor Swift’s “1989” among countless other recent pop hits — behind the boards. The song is most similar to Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” built around an infectious guitar riff and a quirky delivery on the chorus. “Send my love to your new la-ah-ver,” Adele sings, her voice veering far from its usual calm composure. It’s one of the few songs on the album that captures the cheeky personality that comes through in her interviews.

The redeeming factor of “25,” though, is Adele’s powerful voice, which can elevate even the most underwritten, clichéd material. Especially uninspired are the emotive piano ballad “Remedy,” the lyrics of which read like a litany of hackneyed adages, and “Love in the Dark,” which lays it on heavy with a cloying orchestral arrangement. “When We Were Young” is a slow-burning highlight, but it’s easy to imagine it would have been a dreary slog had it been recorded by Jesso and not Adele.

However, these trite numbers are outweighed by the album’s stone-cold classic, the gorgeous “All I Ask,” co-written and produced by Bruno Mars’ production team, The Smeezingtons. It’s a devastatingly lonely ballad about the dissolution of a relationship and Adele delivers a career-high vocal performance. “If this is my last night with you / Hold me like I’m more than just a friend,” she pleads on its chorus, her voice cracking, before arriving at a heartbreaking realization: “‘Cause what if I never love again?” It’s a masterful track befitting of an artist in her imperial phase — and a powerful confirmation of why Adele’s songs of romantic anguish struck a chord with so many millions in the first place.

3/5 stars

Tracks: “Send My Love (To Your New Lover),” “When We Were Young,” “All I Ask”

If you like: Dusty Springfield, Barbara Streisand

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About Matthew Munhall

Matthew thinks everyone should listen to Charly Bliss.

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