Here’s a monster of an unenviable task: following up an album that sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, spawned multiple ubiquitous singles, won a truckload of Grammys, spent 24 nonconsecutive weeks at number one, and was labeled by Billboard as “the Greatest Album of All Time”—whatever that means. Adele’s 21 was the kind of phenomenon that doesn’t happen in the music world anymore. Albums are obsolete for the average listener, right? Digital track sales are plummeting? Monoculture is dead? Adele defied every expectation and turned her sophomore album into a cultural sensation that was probably as close as our generation will ever get to having a Thriller. No wonder the British songstress took the better part of five years to drop the follow-up.
Unsurprisingly, 25 has arrived to endless comparisons to its predecessor—many of them unflattering. The reviews are mixed, and while the album will undoubtedly be a juggernaut that breaks sales records and single-handedly keeps the record business on life support for another few years, it’s already pretty clear that 25 is not going to have the legacy of adoration that its world-beating predecessor did.
Here’s the thing: 21 was such a one-in-a-billion miracle that to expect it to be replicated (or better yet, topped) would have simply been unreasonable. You could compare 25 endlessly to the album it follows; you could say there’s nothing as flawless as “Someone Like You,” or that there isn’t a single with the potential to reach “Rolling in the Deep” levels of ubiquity. You could also say that Adele plays it safe and just stays pretty much in her wheelhouse throughout 25, which, while not entirely true, is arguably the album’s biggest weakness. What keeps this album from being great isn’t that it can’t recreate 21; it’s that it sometimes tries too hard to recapture the elements that defined that modern classic.
21 was a break-up record. Adele wrote in the wake of a fractured romance and every song on the disc—from the soulful kiss-off “Rumour Has It” to the late-night torch song “Set Fire to the Rain”—had to do with heartache and recovery. When Saturday Night Live did a skit about how Emma Stone, Coldplay, and various cast members liked to listen to “Someone Like You” in private and weep, it essentially defined how a lot of people saw 21 and Adele’s music in general: it was music to cry to.
25 is—and should be—a different beast. If 21 found Adele at her lowest, 25 finds her at the peak of her powers. She found someone new; she fell in love; she became a mother; she became an icon; she became incredibly wealthy; she won an Oscar. With all of that considered, one might think that 25 should sound downright celebratory. Then again, Adele initially suffered from writer’s block while trying to get started on this album, and actually feared that she might not have anything to say anymore.
That insecurity is reflected in these songs, often manifesting itself in the form of mid-20s malaise. On “Hello,” Adele contacts an old flame, trying to reconnect after years spent becoming strangers. “Hello from the outside/I must have called a thousand times,” she belts on the massive chorus, which heralded her triumphant return to the music world last month. While the song plays as a number about lost love, it perfectly captures the awkwardness and ache of trying to get back in touch with someone—be they a friend or an ex—years after you stopped speaking regularly. Being the one to break that silence, no matter how much you miss the person on the other end of the line, is a vulnerable position to be in. When Adele sings “At least I can say that I’ve tried,” it hits like a gut-punch, like all of her best lyrics do. Some relationships just can’t be rekindled, but the idea of trying anyway, just so you can live your life without regrets about the people who fell out of it, makes for one hell of a compelling pop song. The fact that Adele is probably the best singer in pop these days doesn’t hurt, either.
25’s best songs explore that vulnerability from a number of different angles—a perfect match for the quarter-life crossroads that the album title represents. “When We Were Young” is the album’s beating heart, a yearning power ballad that again finds the narrator trying to reconnect with somebody who they used to know. “You feel like home,” Adele professes on the verse, before launching into the cathartic chorus: “Let me photograph you in this light/In case it is the last time/That we might be exactly how we were.” If there’s a “Someone Like You” on 25, this is it.
Elsewhere, “I Miss You” and “Water Under the Bridge” are big, bombastic pop songs about mature adult relationships—supposedly written about Adele’s boyfriend and the father of her child. “I Miss You” is a song about never going to sleep with a fight unresolved, while “Water Under the Bridge” finds someone who is famous for singing breakup songs coming to the realization that, this time, things might just be different. The fantastic “River Lea”—produced by Danger Mouse and carrying echoes of U2’s underrated Songs of Innocence—provides the flip side to “Water Under the Bridge,” with Adele suggesting that the failed relationships of her past will only poison her current one. “Consider this my apology, I know it’s years in advance/But I’d rather say it now, in case I never get the chance.” Juxtaposed next to one another in the tracklist, these two songs crackle with even more tension than they do alone.
Thanks to the SNL skit, 21 had a reputation for being an album meant for wallowing, but 25 is often hopeful. “Hello” and “When We Were Young” are heart-wrenching songs, but are filled with images of past grandeur and glimmers of hope for reconnecting and rebuilding old friendships. “I Miss You” and “Water Under the Bridge” (as well as album closer “Sweetest Devotion”) are about a relationship that is durable enough to weather the storm, and even “River Lea”—which isn’t exactly optimistic—sparks with an almost otherworldly sense of anticipation, thanks largely to Danger Mouse’s booming production. The Ryan Tedder co-written “Remedy” also falls into the “hopeful” category. Written about Adele’s son, “Remedy” is touching, but also a bit by-the-numbers. Subjects like this one deserve a more lyrical nuance than Adele and Tedder deliver here, and the song ends up in the “generic piano ballad” pile, despite its personal resonance.
It’s when Adele slips back into writing straightforward breakup songs, however, that she really loses the plot. She knows that heartbreaking emotive ballads are her wheelhouse. Fans want another “Someone Like You” or another “Turning Tables,” even if she’s not in a place right now where it makes sense to write songs like that. She still tries, though, an attempt which results in three dull dirges in a row. “Love in the Dark,” “Million Years Ago,” and “All I Ask” aren’t great songs to begin with, but the fact that they are all jumbled together, one after the other in the album’s back half, results in some serious momentum problems for the disc.
”Love in the Dark” is probably the most successful of the bunch, a string-drenched piano ballad supposedly written about Adele’s post-21 rebound relationship. A big torch song in the vein of her James Bond contribution, “Love in the Dark” actually does play like an attempt at rewriting “Turning Tables,” but is significantly less soul-shredding. “Million Years Ago” is promising, an acoustic ballad that recalls some of the material on Adele’s more intimate debut album, 19. Sped up into a sultrier tango, “Million Years Ago” could have been something really special. As is, the song feels overwrought and sleepy, not helped by the ridiculously on-the-nose nature of a line like “I feel like my life is flashing by/And all I can do is watch and cry.” The histrionics continue on “All I Ask,” an overwrought Bruno Mars co-written piano ballad where the punchline is “What if I never love again?” 21’s lyrics hurt because they felt so genuine and lived in. These songs, on the other hand, reek so badly of affectation that they’re almost eye-roll worthy. When someone’s music is as autobiographical as Adele’s, you can tell when they’re really connecting with the songs and when they’re not. This bunch of ballads falls into the latter category.
Worse, in the midst of an album that often explores relationships and getting older with considerable nuance and maturity, “Million Years Ago” and “All I Ask” just feel out of place. Overblown and old-fashioned to a point of theatricality, both songs would sound more at home on a Broadway stage than they do here. Maybe that was the intention, but it forces 25 into a weird place where cohesion and theme go out the window in the final 20 minutes. It’s all remarkably well sung and beautifully produced—particularly “All I Ask,” which really does play like a second-act musical theater showstopper. The impact, though, is that 25 ends up feeling more like a “greatest hits” compilation of a very long writing and recording process than it does like a singular artistic statement.
Look, Adele worked with a lot of different people for this project. Mars, Tedder, Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth, Tobias Jesso Jr., Ariel Rechtshaid, and Greg Kurstin are all among the credited songwriters or producers. Sia, Damon Albarn, and others reportedly collaborated with Adele on songs that didn’t make the album. Even Max Martin and Shellback show up, assisting on the out-of-place and awkward “Send My Love (To Your New Lover).” You can’t really blame the co-writers and producers for the lack of cohesion here, though. 21 featured key contributions from Epworth, Tedder, Dan Wilson, Francis T. Smith, Rick Rubin, and plenty of others—not to mention a cover of a Cure song. But that album also had a narrower scope: it was a breakup album, through and through, and thrived on that description. By broadening the themes, growing up a bit, and going deeper, 25 hits upon some truly transcendent moments—moments that deserve the millions of lives they’ll soundtrack. It’s just hard to fully praise an album that stops feeling like an album three-quarters of the way through.