For years in the music industry, artists either were stars or were just making a living in search of stardom. (Or failing entirely.) Tuesdays, in the music industry of old, were home to big releases by major artists — even if you had no interest in buying a new release every week, you at least were aware of what was hitting the stores. Things couldn’t be more different now: for one, Tuesday releases in the US are no more — albums are now released on Fridays across the globe instead of on various days of the week depending on the country — and more importantly, there are just a handful of true superstars left who can move millions of units in an era when “track equivalent albums” are somehow factored into the equation. (Tracking streaming activity is fine, but claiming a certain number of track sales (10) or streams (1500) is equivalent to an album sale really is ludicrous and desperate.) There appear to be just two artists left who are genuine superstars: Taylor Swift and Adele.
Taylor’s 2014 album 1989 managed to sell 5 million copies, a magnificent feat this deep into the 2010s. I chose not to review it, since I cannot stand Taylor Swift and it’s not my policy to trash something just to trash it. (I did listen to 1989 a couple times, though, and thought it was astoundingly bad. Some songs might have turned out OK if they weren’t smothered by an awful ’80s throwback production, but it is what it is.) Swift might be a commercial cut above her contemporaries, as the sales of 1989 proved, but Adele is an order of magnitude above even Swift in this respect. Commercially, Adele is in a league of her own — in 2011 it was inconceivable that an album would go diamond ever again, yet 21 did. Naturally, the next question became, how would the inevitable follow-up fare commercially? Would records fall? In a word, yes.
By the time the lead single and lead track “Hello” appeared in October 2015, Adele, last seen collecting an Oscar for the Skyfall theme song of the same name, had spent three years out of the spotlight. She had moved on from the relationship that served as the subject matter of 21, and had even had a baby boy with her new boyfriend. It was hard not to feel happy for her newfound happiness (and success, too). Adele managed to strike a chord with millions the world over after laying bare the state of her soul post-breakup, and everyone was looking forward to sharing in the next chapter of her life. Released nearly five years after 21, the resulting follow-up, 25, is certainly a natural progression for Adele, even if it doesn’t quite deliver what was expected. It was just assumed that since 21 was all about her mental state following a breakup, 25 would be about her new relationship and baby, which turns out not to be the case.
Instead, 25 captures Adele at the low following her breakup (i.e., before she found happiness with her current love), which some might find disingenuous. After all, she’s happy now, so why dwell on the past, especially when that ground was already covered on the previous record? While it’s hard to shake that there is some undeniable overlap here, there also absolutely does not have to be a 1:1 correlation between an artist’s life and her art. It could be that love (and love lost) will always be Adele’s stock in trade (though she has apparently stated in interviews that 25 will be the last album named after her age when making it). But 25 does feel like a missed opportunity in many respects, especially since most of the tracks wander in and out of consciousness without making a particularly strong impression. While her debut 19 seems unfocused in retrospect, there were at least some unquestionably great songs on it like “Chasing Pavements,” “Hometown Glory,” “Right as Rain,” “My Same,” and a stunning cover of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love.”
And while 21 was laser-focused on a particular subject, this did unify the album’s almost uniformly excellent songs. 25 favors a similar focus in terms of subject matter, but somehow the songs themselves feel a bit murky, lacking shape and definition. The album was a struggle to make (a result of many recording sessions and scrapped recordings along the way), and the seams certainly show. After all, when everything goes right with an album and it becomes a runaway success, this typically empties out the creative well completely. (Remember Oasis‘ follow-up to (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?) Adele was wise to take some time off — of course, her baby situation mandated this anyway — and live out of the public eye to get some of her life back before sharing some of it again with us. However, she probably realized that her current happiness didn’t lend itself to a particularly conflict-heavy record that would be dramatic enough to satisfy the masses (or herself).
“They say time’s supposed to heal ya, but I ain’t done much healing,” she says on “Hello,” which more or less sets the tone for the whole record. Again though, it’s not accurate that she has regressed to writing about the same material as before, since the album does have a different character than its predecessor. Whereas 21 found Adele tackling mostly the initial stages — denial and anger — of grief, 25 finds her wrestling with the last two stages of depression and acceptance. As a result, the album moves at a deliberate pace, never really picking up speed even during songs with a faster tempo like “Water Under the Bridge.” It’s never boring listening, but it does tend to highlight the relative lack of exceptional material here — the lone track that ranks with her past triumphs is the grand, earth-shaking “Love in the Dark.” Come to think of it, it’s the only song that really plays into her strengths, which is probably why it is the only track that doesn’t carry a vague feeling of missing the mark.
The album isn’t a misfire by any means — the craft is too good for that, plus none of the songs are truly bad (though “All I Ask” comes close when its overly showy pianist goes for the jugular) — but it is a couple notches in quality below its predecessor, which is too bad. The magic that made 21 such a relatable and resonant record is just not here. It’s a perfectly fine set of songs to while away the time, but given the low-key, downer nature of the record, it’s hard to imagine 25 having much lasting impact beyond its incredible commercial performance. After shattering opening week totals by selling more than 3 million copies in just one week, 25 kept on selling through the holiday season, notching a staggering 8 million copies sold by early January. Without question, Adele is still an artist and singer to be reckoned with, and I’ll eagerly await whatever comes next from someone who has proved to be a singular pop talent to a generation of music fans used to processed shit. However, 25 is merely solid but unspectacular.