Review by Barry Walters NPR
As anyone who’s seen her in concert can attest, Adele Adkins is one of the most self-aware pop acts ever. Nearly every time she sings, the 27-year-old Londoner accesses the kind of acutely tangible pain that sometimes claims the lives of superstars who attain her astronomical level of success. Yet when Adkins delivers stage banter between those tortured tunes, so much cocky Cockney charm tumbles out that she hardly seems like the same tormented gal. Even when dishing the dirt on those disastrous relationships that inspired her previous albums, 19 and 21, and parts of her long-awaited 25 in highly relatable and hilarious detail, Adkins does so with the clarity of a woman who’s purged her worst fears and can now freely disclose them in a strikingly healthy way that Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain and so many others never could. No wonder the music industry sees Adele as its savior: She’s the well-adjusted white woman who sounds like a black girl who could self-destruct at any moment but will most likely go on generating unfathomably profitable albums like this one.
“Hello from the other side,” goes the most affecting line of 25‘s instant mega-smash debut single and opening track “Hello.” The gist of Adkins’ pre-release interviews is that she wrote 25 about her journey over the threshold of adult life. Accordingly, the album deals with abandoning the instability that plagued her teens and early 20s, and gladly trading it for the maturity of duty-bound motherhood. It also happens to be her first studio album since becoming a record-shattering global phenomenon. Whereas 21 was so clearly and thoroughly a break-up album, a quality that contributed enormously to its universality, 25, Adkins explains, is a “make-up album” in which she makes amends with not only ex-lovers but also her once-broken self who weathered the rocky transition from pudgy teen to heavyweight celebrity.
However, it should be noted that in the first verse of “Hello,” Adkins also sings, “They say that time’s supposed to heal you/But I ain’t done much healing,” and the heartbreak that defined her earlier recordings still lingers throughout this third album, both in spirit and in sound: As “Hello” has already made obvious, 25 isn’t the decisive split from her past that she’s claiming it is. Nevertheless, it radiates absolute confidence. Even more so than its predecessors, 25 focuses almost exclusively on piano balladry, and even though it packs an operatic vibe that spews Sturm und Drang everywhere, genuine orchestral flourishes are confined to one song, “Love in the Dark,” which, like “Hello” and several others, belies Adkins’ I’m-peachy-now sales pitch.
25 isn’t atypical for a 2015 pop album in that it features the singer, a succession of co-songwriter/producer/one-man bands, and not much else. What’s unusual is that it feels truly confidential, as though crafted by just a few intimates instead of pop’s savviest Svengalis. Most of its 11 songs were written and performed by Adkins and one other person, maybe two, and there isn’t a whole lot of instrumentation, even on her track with Max Martin and Shellback, the Swedes who helm the flagrantly contemporary assembly-line pop to which Adkins’ largely retro soul has supposedly been an antidote. But on “Send My Love (to Your New Lover),” an only slightly modernized, not-quite-dance track, the pair showcase and then build around Adkins’ own acoustic yet percussive guitar strum — a shrewd move bound to Adkins’ folky 19-era work, yet rhythmically linked to many Martin hits since his Britney landmark “…Baby One More Time” without overtly referencing their blatant cheese. When she’s in character, on record, Adkins is nothing if not tasteful, even when being catty to doggy ex-boyfriends.
The other team-crafted cut, “All I Ask,” a splashy ballad produced and co-written by Bruno Mars and his musical collaborators the Smeezingtons, is similarly shrewd. Mars and crew erect a massive Whitney-esque melody complete with an unabashedly stagy key change, then deconstruct it by accompanying Adkins with two pianos and nothing else. Drums are also absent on three other tracks, but the persistent low BPMs make 25 feel as though that count is even higher. Given the EDM-crazed present pop moment, when it’s not uncommon for even R&B stars to omit ballads entirely, when Bieber and mainstream rock bands alike boast Skrillex-enabled/copied beats, when even Mumford & Sons structure their boozy sea shanties to ape the builds and sudden drops of stadium DJs, that’s a radical move.
But while 25 strips down the instrumentation, it ramps up the engineering. Adkins is the album’s sole audible voice, yet multi-tracked choirs wail everywhere, often with otherworldly studio effects, like when her amassed cries seep through Danger Mouse‘s bluesy and blustering “River Lea” like its sweeping titular waterworks. Everywhere she’s emphatically in the foreground, high in the mix, yet dominating the background too, and there are few instrumental breaks — only Adkins solos. And although she’s undoubtedly the No. 1 artist of adult contemporary radio, this album, even with its crawling tempos, isn’t exactly easy listening. Adele’s presence is so strong, so physically impactful, that it commands the center of attention. When “Hello” comes on the radio, it makes a break from all the boom-boom around it, and — like it or not — draws you in. Even when writing about this album, I had to turn it off because I couldn’t hear myself think with Adele belting at my brain.
Adkins claims she quit smoking and cut back on drinking to become a responsible guardian to her 3-year-old son, but the ironic result is that her newly expanded range, with its rumbling low notes and keening highs, makes her sound less like a mom and more like an avenging spirit. Back when she recorded 19, particularly on the negligible non-single tracks she wrote by herself, Adkins unabashedly aped Winehouse’s slurred, sub-working-class London delivery. Reviewing 19 for Spin, I concluded, “the gap between serious [soul] intention and blandly clunky results suggests My Fair Lady‘s Eliza Doolittle before she learned how to enunciate ‘The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.'” We now know that every time Adkins opens her gob to speak, Doolittle returns, but having stopped singing the broad vowels and mushy consonants of Tottenham — London’s multi-ethnic and largely Afro-Caribbean equivalent of the Bronx — that are her birthright, she’s somehow become more herself. Even when she punctures the reality of her performance with goofy between-song banter, Adkins’ skill at vocally embodying acute emotion reaches a core of truth more crucial than even her increasingly convincing lyrics that reflect authentic experience.
Take the album’s most audio-tweaked marvel, “I Miss You.” Since Winehouse’s 2006 Back to Black and its particularly funereal title track, there’s been a trend of cathedral pop — big, echo-y ballads from Florence + the Machine, Sam Smith, Lorde and, of course, Adele herself that culminated in Hozier‘s “Take Me to Church,” all of them embodying a particularly Anglo juxtaposition between the heavenly lightness of gospel and the hellfire darkness of goth. We’re a long way from the mercilessness of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Spellbound,” the 1981 U.K. hit in which Siouxisie Sioux instructed young listeners in how to treat elders whose piety lapses; “Take them by the legs and throw them down the stairs,” followed by a tumbling drum break that suggested Sioux heeds her own advice. Yet producer/multi-instrumentalist Paul Epworth’s drums on “I Miss You” still echoes Banshee percussionist Budgie’s off-kilter assault, while his guitar evokes Banshee John McGeoch’s ringing chord fragments. Atop this overtly post-punk foundation floats what’s ostensibly an R&B slow jam, particularly in the lyric department: “Pull me in, hold me tight/Don’t let go, baby give me light,” she gasps through the shadowy, reverb-drenched murk as if thrashing her way to orgasm. Although this unabashed eroticism is a first for Adkins, what’s true to form is that she’s embracing it as a means to embody her favorite subject — longing. She’s not overtly depicting the sex act itself — rather the unquenchable thirst that compels it.
This flight from psychological suffering into full-on fleshy ecstasy is no doubt what Adkins has in mind when characterizing “the other side.” As she sings in “Love in the Dark,” she doesn’t even want the lights out during sex because even her eyes need to drink in the reassurance of what her hands can plainly feel — that she’s beloved, that the father of her child is right there reaching all of her senses to reassure her wounded psyche. Despite astronomical sales and apparently contented home life, desperate desire still dictates Adele’s aesthetics.
Accordingly, ghosts of lovers past still haunt 25, but the song most situated in the present, “Million Years Ago,” is remarkably discerning. Over producer Greg Kurstin’s gentle acoustic guitar that’s akin to 21‘s subtle bossa nova slant on The Cure‘s “Lovesong,” Adkins pines for the normality of her not-so-distant childhood. Entwined with Middle Eastern twists of background hums that suggest Madonna‘s “Frozen,” this is also Adele’s “Drowned World/Substitute for Love” from Ray of Light, Madonna’s post-childbirth breakthrough that Adkins credits as a key 25 inspiration. “I miss it when life was a party to be thrown,” she admits, her voice poised in restraint as if sipping vintage wine, as if crooning Sinatra‘s “It Was a Very Good Year.” Exquisitely theatrical yet nakedly candid, this atypically restrained sigh of a song encapsulates bygone Bacharach-ian sophistication, yet never betrays the singer’s essence as a straight-shooting bird.
Such are the contradictions of Adele. In her curled eyelashes and teased coiffure, Adkins is every bit the performance artist as Lana Del Rey, as Kanye, yet without the convolutions of authenticity that plague these and indeed most 21st century entertainers at a time when every stray fart gets its own tweet. She’s a force of nature in that “Hello” video, like the wind that whips immaculately highlighted tresses around her face and threatens to engulf Adkins in a hurricane of autumnal loss at the clip’s climax. Yet when her uncommonly direct, person-to-person call to not only her ex but every set of ears within proximity to a radio concludes, the curtain descends just as it does in the video with her parting sideways glance. Adele is melodrama itself and real life too.