Fame is a monster. The public spotlight pointed at every celebrity, athlete and politician probably places more stress on them than any number of stage lights under which media figures thrive. But not every celebrity opens up under the harsh scrutiny of a reporter’s question or paparazzi flash bulbs. After releasing a seminal break-up album in 2011, Adele closed herself off, focusing on establishing a family and having a baby. As 21 remained on Billboard’s top album chart, Adele didn’t lavish in the spotlight. Instead, the singer-songwriter reflected upon the relationship which spawned her record-breaking album and crafted a follow-up.
How do you judge an album like 21? It’s one of the tightest releases in the last decade, with every song fitting like a forlorn jigsaw puzzle mapping out the disintegration of Adele’s relationship. Because of the success of 21, any fan has to admire Adele’s patience with how long it took to release 25. With the exception of the title track for “Skyfall,” Adele remained tight-lipped with regard to her third album, and fans lay in wait until the day before the release of 25’s first single, “Hello,” before they could finally revel in the announcement that Adele had returned.
I’m going to be frank—25 pales in comparison to the perfected sadness of 21. But that shouldn’t scare away potential listeners. 25 sees Adele at both her strongest, especially after a late 2011 vocal chord surgery, but also her most unsure. Long gone are the piss-off anthems of “Rolling in the Deep” and “Rumour Has It.” Instead, self-doubt and second-guessing have replaced the brash, confident nature that dominated 21.
The vocal imperfections that dot the album, along with the more stripped-down production and composition, let Adele’s natural talent shine brightly. “Million Years Ago” features just a Spanish guitar and Adele’s soothing voice, depicting the inevitability of change and the progress of time. Both “Remedy” and “All I Ask,” powerful piano ballads, envelop the listener in a blanket of Adele’s distraught hope for reconciliation.
At first listen, the more experimental songs seem out of left field compared to Adele’s more classic, ’60s soul-inspired musings, but “River Lea,” with Danger Mouse at the helm for production, is both ethereal and heartwarming. Adele finally breaks from her self-doubt and notes of 21’s confidence break through. “I Miss You,” reminiscent of a Bat for Lashes’ B-side, has Adele revealing a more sensual side, a side that fits the reflection running through the album.
Surprisingly, it’s the songs which sound perfect for radio plays that hold back 25. “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” is catchy and upbeat, but sounds too similar to other Max Martin tracks that have topped the charts over the last decade. “Water Under the Bridge,” featuring Adele’s defiance to her lover’s indifference, reminds the listener of the heart-pounding tracks from 21 but feels out of place and includes a fair amount of cliches.
When 25 soars, it reaches new heights in Adele’s vocal performance and her songwriting ability. While it is sure to break records in terms of first-week sales, Adele’s foray into self-reflection is a solid effort and capitalizes well on her talents as the most gifted, spurned twenty-something lover.