Album Assignments: 25

Adele is young, but she doesn’t feel that way. I know for sure how young she is, because she does us the favor of naming her albums after her age at the time of their recording. At 19, she was a prodigy who sang about dreams and heartbreak. At 21, she was a genuine phenomenon who sang about heartbreak, heartbreak, heartbreak, and a couple other things, and in the process released the best-selling album of the 21st century, moving over 35 million copies worldwide. These albums were openly confessional, chronicles of relationships gone sour and the multitude of emotions they left in their wake.

23 was not forthcoming. She instead took a break from the music business and had a baby. Come 2015, though, she released another chapter in the story of Adele, called 25. 21 had cemented her image as The One Left Hurting in relationship wreckage, and the first couple of songs on 25 continue in that vein. “Hello” in fact sounds like it may as well have come from 21, and not coincidentally it was the new album’s first single.

It was as if no time had passed. The song went to Number One everywhere, sticking around for 10 weeks at the top spot in the U.S. Adele’s musical persona was just as hurt as ever, and she tells us up front that she “ain’t done much healing.” She also introduces a motif of nostalgia, with an image of herself “in California dreaming about who we used to be / When we were younger and free.”

Album cover from 25

That theme got amplified further in her next single, “When We Were Young,” in which she openly reminisces about those bygone days of youth, during which she and her lover were “sad of getting old.” Now she’s old, and “mad of getting old.”

Right about now is when I start shaking my head and saying, “Adele… you’re twenty-five. You seriously think you’re old?” She sure seems to, as other songs on the album underline that same theme. In fact, one song seriously ups the ante by hyperbolizing the time dilation: “I miss it when life was a party to be thrown / But that was a million years ago.” This amount of nostalgia from somebody in her mid-twenties strikes me as almost comical.

Now, in fairness, Adele has done a lot of living in her years. I certainly wouldn’t know what it’s like to record one of the top-selling albums of all time at 21 years old, and for that matter neither would anybody else in the world this side of Alanis Morissette. There’s an Elton John/Leon Russell documentary in which we hear that fame is like cancer, and Adele certainly has survived an intense dose over the six years between her debut album and this one.

Still, what exactly is she pining for? Flipping back through the first couple of chapters, it sure doesn’t seem like Adele’s life was a party to be thrown. Her way-back-when seems like it was mostly full of pain and yearning, unless perhaps she’s hearkening back to the time before she started recording albums?

In any case, 25 shows us a deepening and broadening of Adele’s experience. Yes, there are plenty of relationship heartbreak songs, along with relationship insecurity songs, and relationship regret songs. But tucked in there are a couple of songs that are directly about her own identity.

The first of these is the aforementioned “Million Years Ago”, whose disappointment and longing for bygone days I find a little puzzling, but the other one fascinates me. It’s called “River Lea”, and from the first lyric it displays a different kind of self-awareness: “Everybody tells me it’s ’bout time that I moved on / That I need to learn to lighten up and learn how to be young.” That sounds a lot like my reaction to “When We Were Young”, though maybe a bit more harsh.

Where it goes from there is even more surprising: “But my heart is a valley, it’s so shallow and man-made / I’m scared to death if I let you in that you’ll see I’m just a fake.” Is this Adele revealing us to us how much performance and amplification is involved in the presentation of her image? Now, before I go further, I need to emphasize that if Adele’s heart is shallow and her emotions are fake, she sure as hell does a magnificent job of performing otherwise. Her songs give me chills, and quite honestly I don’t care if they’re strictly autobiographical or not, though it provides an interesting platform for discussion.

That said, there is a level of melodrama in her work that I think can’t help but be either an exaggeration or an out-of-context set of snapshots from her most extreme emotional moments. In “River Lea”, she goes even further than that, portraying herself as a user of others and an inevitable source of pain. The chorus refers to “every heart I use to heal the pain”, and one verse forecasts the suffering she knows she’ll cause:

I should probably tell you now before it’s way too late
That I never meant to hurt you or to lie straight to your face
Consider this my apology, I know it’s years in advance
But I would rather say it now in case I never get the chance

This is an Adele that is quite separate from the one best known by the world. Instead of the victim, she is the victimizer, and what’s more she knows she’s going to do it. I’m not sure what to make of the river metaphor — perhaps it’s lost on me as an American — but I found this easily the most compelling song on the album, both for its starkly different point of view and for its gorgeous production and instrumentation.

In fact, the production all over this album is fantastic, just as it was on 21. Despite the fact that there are no fewer than eleven credited producers on this album, the consistent thread throughout is that Adele’s dazzling voice remains at the center of every track, and accompaniment for the most part remains simple and subservient. That’s an excellent choice, as vocals should be the star of the show on any Adele album.

Along with the identity songs, 25 gives us a couple of other sides of Adele we hadn’t seen before. “Love In The Dark” shows her as the breaker of a relationship rather than the one left behind. She does it with regret and shame, but with no less clarity for that: “I can’t stay this time ’cause I don’t love you anymore.”

Even more groundbreaking is the final song on the album, “Sweetest Devotion”. Amid a thicket of painful songs, this one is an unabashed expression of joy in love, portrayed as a complete surprise. When she sings, “the sweetest devotion / hit me like an explosion”, it feels like an explosion, and it works just as beautifully as any of the agonized songs that precede it.

Like Melissa Etheridge before her, Adele has made love’s pain the foundation of her career, and we may well wonder whether she has more to give us. If “Sweetest Devotion” is any indication, we need not worry. The growth and exploration on display in 25 makes me eager for the next chapter, wherever it may lead.

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