Adele’s latest album, 25, a “make up” album that plays it safe, writes Fiona Shepherd
Adele: 25 | Rating: *** | XL
Coming a tantalising five years after the staggering success of Adele’s previous album, 21 – which has just topped Billboard’s 200 Greatest Albums of All Time list (reflecting its chart domination rather than its artistry) – the release of 25 is undeniably An Event, and the storming success of comeback single Hello, conquering the charts in 26 countries, dull though it is, suggests world domination is assured.
Yet 25 sounds shackled by expectations rather than liberated like the more candid outpourings of her earlier work. On the long road to its release, an album about motherhood was written, then scrapped, as were the results of songwriting sessions with Damon Albarn.
Who knows where that slightly curveball collaboration could have taken her but, instead, Adele has taken no commercial chances, opting to collaborate with the biggest hitmaking names in pop production – Greg Kurstin, Max Martin, Ryan Tedder – as well as her old mucker Paul Epworth and turn out this safe, self-styled “make up album” which she characterises as “making up for everything I ever did and never did”. This sounds sort of profound and vacuous at the same time, a good indicator of what is to come as she almost inevitably falls back on her strong suit – songs of heartbreak.
And why not? This is classic territory. A great songwriter can return to the same topic time and again and mine something fresh from that rich seam. That’s the ideal, anyway, but Hello is a morose and even slightly indulgent curtain-raiser.
The Amy Winehouse-inspired Send My Love (To Your New Lover) promises a bit more attitude, and delivers like a more mature Clapping Song. I Miss You is also rhythm-led, but as heavy-handed as Florence Welch in her empty arena pomp.
When We Were Young, co-written with rising singer/songwriter Tobias Jesso Jr, is such conventional confessional singer/songwriter fare that it could have been written 40 years ago by Gilbert O’Sullivan. Such conservative piano arrangements are not an issue when you have a song as powerful as Someone Like You in your armoury, but when you don’t…
At least Danger Mouse provides an atmospheric cushion of shimmering organ for River Lea, and Million Years Ago, with its retro Spanish guitar arrangement, provides blessed relief from the oppressive piano and wilting strings. The lighter accompaniment allows for greater appreciation of Adele’s exquisite vocals and world-weary lyrics. “Life was a party to be thrown but that was a million years ago,” she laments, yet this is the shot in the arm which the album needs.
She also sings the heck out of All I Ask, co-written with Bruno Mars – though it might as well be Barry Manilow for all its currency – then gives it some pop gospel welly on the climactic Sweetest Devotion, by which point it is possible to forgive 25 for going on 40.