Ms. Adele Adkins, four years ago, would describe herself as a highly depressed, less mature, very bitter voracious smoker who paired each passing day with a bottle of wine. She was the life of the party who said too much and cared too little. Her 2011 project, the album 21, reflected this situational distress. She was living and learning and feeling; and with all that, she produced what will probably be perpetually recognized as her best, most important work. 21 reflects just what Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, The Strokes’ Is This It, or Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours did: The indisputable condition of the creative soul is that when they are the most sad, or the most emotionally distraught, their best work is set to inevitably emerge. Being in despair almost always means you’re the most artistically motivated. It’s in those moments of intense emotional disparity that artists are most motivated to find the answer to the question that belies the human experience: “What is the point to all this ‘love’ bullshit?”
Adele reconnects with this unanswerable query, and many more, on her just-released album, 25. She’s a mother now and has happily settled into a stable relationship with the father of her child. Adele doesn’t smoke anymore, doesn’t drink, spends time with close friends but, admittedly, spends most nights at home with her family. After all the emotional and lifestyle changes over the past four years, it’s a little surprising that all these acquired experiences wouldn’t immediately inspire and motivate an album for age 23, or at the very least for the age of 24.
But writer’s block plagued the mind of one of the world’s favorite red-heads. She held her experiences in equally high esteem, surely, but struggled to connect them to her art form. Writing sessions with an array of acclaimed individuals — Ryan Tedder, Danger Mouse, Greg Kurstin, Shellback and many others — were supposed to help spur her creativity. And a lot of that didn’t help. More time was supposed to help, too. More learning, more yearning and personal reflection: this combination should open the floodgates to Adele’s hidden world of pain, shouldn’t it? The Almighty Adele had to eventually reemerge in the studio with some new recollection of a messed up life and mind. That’s what we have all pegged her to do, isn’t it?
Ms. Adkins, instead, decided to give herself the necessary amount of time, whatever that would be, before releasing 25. She waited for what was most honest, a key ingredient to all of Adele’s music. This task — locating the most honest parts of yourself, or the messages that most clearly define your current emotional and mental landscape — is exceptionally arduous. And when one considers how many people plan to draw relatability and direction from whatever is produced, the difficulty of the task intensifies.
So, as the emotional epi-pen to millions, what do you do? Do you give the perpetually despaired masses what they crave: soulful, gorgeously produced pop music to underlie a nearly perfect voice speaking sonnets of lost loves, bad decisions and unfair conditions? Adele had the formula for what would derive for her the most success — she had acquired it with 21. But she left it back there, with her frightfully distraught 21-year-old self and reemerged in the studio with the wisdom of a new mother, the depth of a lover in some comfortable, settled kind of love, and the child-like, experimental nature of one still trying to define their 20s.
The lens from which Adele envisioned 25 was less jaded and broken, but far more mature. In 25, Adele lyrically chastises herself, rather than some unnamed man of the past, for her mistakes and shortcomings and the people she has hurt. The album’s opener and first single, “Hello,” is a direct indicator of this sentiment: I royally screwed up a couple of years ago, and so did you. Let’s reconnect.
Other tracks, like “River Lea” or “Million Years Ago” drip with self-deprecation and nostalgia. “I know I’m not the only one who regrets the things they’ve done,” sings Adele on “Million Years Ago.” She is missing her youth, missing her former self and reexamining it all from the aged wisdom of a woman who has trenched through some thick emotional shit. Other tracks like “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” and “All I Ask” follow the lyrical themes found on 21. “If this is my last night with you, hold me like I’m more than just a friend / give me a memory I can use,” sings Adele on the piano power ballad, “All I Ask.” It’s a song she co-wrote with one of her favorite musical colleagues, Bruno Mars. The pleading and nervous expectation of future sadness leans back into 21 for just a moment. Because, as Ms. Adkins reveals, time passes and hearts mend, but the fear of future loss remains.
“When We Were Young,” the fourth track on the album, was co-written by Tobias Jesso, Jr., the Piano Man for the new generation. Beginning as a slower piano ballad, the simplistic musicality of the song holds up against the consuming nature of both the song’s nostalgia and the singer’s emotion. Adele’s fluid syncopations with fellow artists is obvious on 25, but this artistic eye for collaboration is most successful on this fourth track.
The most precious and possibly most mature track on 25 opens with the giggles of her son. “Sweetest Devotion” begins with the little laughs and mumbles of a child before exploding into the layered explosions of the song. In the album’s finale, Adele makes it clear that she has self-actualized as a mother and girlfriend. “Sweetest Devotion” is a postcard to her past and future self, letting them both know that at one point, and in one moment, she did figure it all out.
The musicality of 25 is less cacophonous than 21. The growth of Adele’s mind and heart has bled into her music as one of greater fluidity and smooth soul sounds. 25 does, however, hold variety: working with Max Martin, Shellback, Bruno Mars, and Danger Mouse left the album with a few more pop beats and a couple more catchy hooks. Listeners have lost the tantalizing drums of “Rolling in the Deep” and “Set Fire to the Rain,” but have gained the pop beats and sweeter versions of Ms. Adkins’ voice on “Water Under the Bridge” and “Send My Love (To Your New Lover).”
25 is a rightful follow-up to the Billboard-shattering success that was 21. The tear ducts of the listener are less empty and emotional staminas will feel less ravaged upon each listen, but Adele hasn’t rescinded her honesty. We have observed her potential. Adele has taken us to the peak of the mountain of despair. We’re back with her now, in the year 2015, piecing together what we have learned. Take another four or five years now, Adele, and send us a soul-pop postcard when you get to the next mountain. We’ll be waiting here, ever so patiently, to hear about what you have found there.