This isn’t a modern pop record.
Not quite a pop star, not exactly a diva, Adele is not of her time so much as she is stuck in the age in which she lives. 25, her latest album, quickly destroyed seemingly insurmountable single-week sales records. She’s undeniably popular, but thanks to her PR strategy she’s not a ubiquitous presence, a savvy move on the road to becoming a modern pop icon. Still, who are her contemporaries? One has to go back to the Titanic soundtrack to find a ballad as earth-shatteringly successful and out-of-step with the times as “Hello.” The closest parallel to what she has accomplished and how she carries herself may be Frank Ocean. They make for odd bedfellows.
This isn’t a modern pop record. It’s like a pedestrian Broadway musical whose middling material is saved by incredible performances. The record reaches for sweeping emotion at every turn, and occasionally these mining expeditions are successful. It’s not an album so much as a delivery vehicle for her voice. Given her singular talent, that may be enough.
25 is sparse. Outside of attempts to merge the singer’s diva leanings with contemporary pop trends, as on the Max Martin collaboration “Send my Love (to Your New Lover)” and album closer “Sweetest Devotion,” it isn’t a fussily-produced record. Arrangements and song structures are as minimal as possible to make room for Adele’s voice, which is the most compelling part of this sound.
This mostly works out just fine, but ballads like “Remedy” and “All I Ask” would have benefited from stronger writing and arranging. For a woman who reportedly takes so much pride in writing her own songs that she considered retiring from music altogether, her lyrics are not well developed. Take, for example, “When We Were Young,” the best song on the record. Rather than flesh out its story and perspective, she relies on shorthand to convey what words cannot: “It was just like a movie/ It was just like a song.” Listeners will understand what she is going for because of context, but words alone don’t carry it.
None of that really matters when Adele hits the high notes and unleashes her big, strong, brassy voice, so powerful you think you might cry. For all its lyrical failings,” When We Were Young” is the kind of song that can flatten someone. Adele sells the shit out of this song, immersing the listener in a world of loss, sadness and preemptive nostalgia. It is the kind of song that makes you feel something whether you want to or not.
That transportive quality sustains a record that knows all too well what puts asses in the seats (it’s not piano accompaniment). Adele can sing, and she spends most of the album trying to justify underwritten lyrics and under-accompanied songs as a runway for her once-in-a-generation throat. In the hands of a lesser performer, 25 would fall apart (Ariana Grande couldn’t get away with this album), but for all its failings and over-dramatic turns, when Adele’s punches land, they knock you out. Adele has created an album with universal appeal powered solely by her vocal gifts. It goes down easy, but there’s a reason albums like this don’t come around that often: it’s exhausting to feel this much emotion.