Anticipation’s a bitch. For Adele, whose bajillion-selling 21 (okay, not a bajillion, but 30 million worldwide) proved emotional exorcism is its own commercial reward, how do you return to such raw nakedness and not implode?
For 25—both stripping back and unleashing gospel choirs, thick arrangements, large bass beats—juxtaposition is as much a device as contrast heightens the dizzying emotional cliffs Adele flies over like some graceful reindeer high on magic corn.
Because for all the bone-scraping honesty of Adele’s songs, the work with uber-producers Danger Mouse, Greg Kurstin and Max Martin as well as 19 and 21 producers Paul Epworth and Ryan Tedder, and the Oscar for “Skyfall,” in the end, there is that voice and what she does with it. The catch, the tears, the ragged edge when the emotions stain everything, Adele’s rafter-scraping alto is a portal not into but actually out of the feelings she’s working from.
“It was just like a movie…It was just like a song…” teeters, brave and yearning as Adele finally draws that breath and offers a world-weary “when we were young.” Everything that love is when we don’t know enough to know we could get hurt and there is no stopping is contained in how her voice lingers, drapes and ultimately recognizes the loss of innocence with just a few notes.
Adele proves herself to be the true vocalist of the day. Harkening back to Dusty Springfield’s large emotions wrapped in smoky put-it-out there vulnerability more than Barbra Streisand’s exquisite perfection, Celine Dion or Mariah Carey’s power throttle, Whitney Houston’s church-driven force or Christina Aguilera’s pyrotechnics, the slightly messy, just off-kilter moments she captures with full-frontal pain, anger and want have as much stopping power, but more genuine heart.
This is a flesh-and-blood woman who is now able to reckon with the wreckage. The symphonic swirl rising from the starkness of “Hello” measures the passage of time and the evolution of her humanity. Closure in many ways is the ultimate desire, and 25 is rife with it.
The recriminations still bubble—the Taylor Swift-aping “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” offers a post-op on what’s gone—because it’s Adele, but there’s also now the feeling that whatever happened, we’re too grown-up to stay bitter. “All I Ask”—the greatest “last time we make love” song since Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me”—is pure torch, an invitation to move beyond, but for the time being to just stay in the moment and enjoy it completely. To listen is to immerse and revel and emerge more alive.