Adele’s ’25’ is a big return for an even bigger voice. Although it’s been only three years since her last release (the Grammy-winning title song to the venerable 007 franchise, Skyfall), three years never felt so long to her fans. And let’s be honest–Adele’s ’21’ album before Skyfall was an anomaly among recent pop music–winning seven Grammys. When was the last time the industry was presented with a soaring-voiced soul singer who emotionally wrecked every listener within earshot?
’25’ delivers on all the promises, even though none were actually made. It’s instantly familiar yet radically modern. With personal writing credit on every track and powerhouse collaborations by the likes of Swedish hitmaker Max Martin, One Republic frontman Ryan Tedder and even Bruno Mars, Adele’s new album gives us just enough contemporary sonic to uplift her already sky-high vocal perfection and emotion. And no one does emotion like Adele.
Here’s a track-by-track review of ’25’:
I think you’ve heard this one. It’s the only real comeback song that matters right now. It starts low and gets even lower to the point where when she confesses “but I ain’t done much healing,” you’re unsure her voice can go lower, literally and figuratively. It’s a song of longing for the past while recognizing how time doesn’t heal a true love lost. Musically, the focus is short chords and a subdued drumbeat. It’s dramatic at every turn. Part of you wants the production value to get bigger, as is the practice with today’s pop music, but Adele’s people know what they’re doing here. They’ve masterfully complemented Adele’s voice with just enough technical spunk. There are perfect and easy chorus harmonies with the backing vocal – somewhat easy for anyone to replicate after a few listens. The vocal modulation in the chorus adds so much emotional drama that you think she’s crying. And maybe she is. A quick gasp for breath at the end is the perfect emotional exclamation point.
2. Give My Love (To Your New Lover)
She starts by saying “Just the guitar, ok cool” as a solo guitar starts its ticking base line. I was instantly reminded of the opening guitar of fellow Brit Ed Sheeran’s powerhouse song Bloodstream from his “X” album. This song transitions quickly to bouncy, M.I.A.-reminiscent pop. No really… it makes you want to bounce. Max Martin has co-created Adele at her most playful. Not since “Rolling In The Deep” have we had such blatant sass–a slap in the face to a lost love who needs to grow up. Vocally, the chorus constantly jumps from octave to octave effortlessly with subdued vocal acrobatics.
3. I Miss You
This one opens with an electronic keyboard that’s borderline scary until a thumping drumbeat quickly turns tribal. It’s got a deep base line with techie flourishes worthy of some futuristic sci-fi movie soundtrack, despite the addition of an ever-present tambourine. The “I want every single piece of you” lyric sounds somewhat predatory in a way that’s new for Adele fans. The chorus literally bangs and soars as hard and high as Adele’s effortless vocal. The song is slow-moving and steady–ending with a high-octave piano.
4. When We Were Young
This is heartbreak and longing as only Adele does it. She’s moved on but can’t quit remembering how it was “back then.” Backing vocals remind us of a mass choir (which I’d wager is on the short list of ideas for a possible 2016 Grammys performance). I hear twinges of Jennifer Hudson during Adele’s high vocal register.
I’m calling it: this is going to be THE wedding song of 2016. A piano introduces instant melody. And that piano is fast perfection. It easily matches Adele’s vocal tempo before calming down to a soft pre-climax. There’s a final crescendo that’s not be missed, accompanied by perfect high vocal modulations.
6. Water Under The Bridge
This is highly produced pop with chords that are so ear-friendly you can’t help but groove in place. There is commercial appeal here for a single release, and I like the addition of a percussion instrument that sounds like it’s made of wooden tubes–something you’d find at an ethnic market. The message here speaks to time and experience with a past lover that can’t be discounted even though life moves on.
7. River Lea
An organ returns to this song. Adele is making a confession on her insecurities despite others’ advice. She sings, “my heart is a valley, it’s so shallow and man-made.” The opening limerick transitions to a huge mid-tempo production with a repetitive chorus that hearkens back to her roots. She wants to change but her past prevents it–exclaimed by a haunting final echo.
8. Love In The Dark
This is the first inclusion of strings (violin) and they place nicely with the stalwart piano. This is another song about heartbreak but in a different way. This is a grown up Adele–an Adele that realizes how she’s changed. Singing “I can’t love you in the dark” and “everything changed me” is a nod to how she’s moved on. A staccato harp comes in half-way through, helping define this thoughtful and powerful confession of personal growth.
9. Million Years Ago
This hearkens back to a traditional Spanish tune with just a guitar and a soaring vocal. Almost the whole chorus is in Adele’s high register. She’s outside of herself here, realizing her life is so completely different than what she had in mind. She’s missing friends and a simpler life, and damning the fame and celebrity that’s so changed her, or at least changed those things she can’t control.
10. All I Ask
This is typical Adele, dripping with emotion. By asking if this is really the end of love, she doesn’t miss one note even when jumping from low to high and back again. She punches the notes with a huge vocal fist. You might miss the key change near the end because the vocal just doesn’t stop. It’s pure perfection.
11. Sweetest Devotion
’25’ ends on happy note–a different kind of love than we’re used to hearing about from Adele. A quick guitar and an echo of a child clue us in that the most important love of her life is her son. This up-tempo song finally has Adele finding an answer to what she’s been looking for during all the heartache. Vocally, this is the most challenging song of the album. It’s a huge send-off for all her fans until we’re gifted with her next album.