Four years ago Adele brought us an album that at its core was a raw, angry, anthemic “I will survive” that reflected on the painful relationship that dominated the year that she was 21. Four years, a child, and a new stable relationship later she has given her newest album: 25.
While much of her previous album existed in a space of raw anger and heartbreak, 25 is a more hopeful and compassionate album. The heartbreak is still obviously there, but it’s clearly in the process of transforming into acceptance and hope. Adele herself has said that this album for her represents healing, and though in 25’s first single “Hello” she states “I ain’t done much healing” it’s clearly what she's searching for, for herself, and for the others that she’s hurt along the way.
“Hello” opens the album with what feels like a tentative attempt at reconnection with an old friend. While it seems that we might be hearing one half of a telephone call, the song feels more like a series of missed voice-mail messages, leaving us to wonder if the intended recipient had actually heard them, or if the song itself is a last ditch attempt by Adele to be heard and give a heartfelt apology.
Musically, the verses of “Hello” are actually quite thin and Adele’s voice helps us fail to notice that they are sung basically on one note. The simplicity does work for the song, however, and emphasizes the uncertainty that occurs when one is trying to fix a strained relationship. It also sets up a strong contrast to the powerful chorus where Adele claims “at least I can say that I’ve tried / to tell you I’m sorry for breaking your heart.” The longing and remorse in her voice is palpable.
The emotional decision to let go pervades 25. If letting go must happen, how can it be done well? The second to last song on the album, “All I Ask,” has a clear sense of inevitable breakup, but seeks to find the best of what was, and remember it. “Let this be our lesson in love / Let this be the way we remember us.” “Water Under the Bridge” argues that a relationship is worth saving, giving a list of reasons and benefits of the relationship and a challenging her lover: “Don’t pretend that you don't want me / Our love ain't water under the bridge.”
Woven through the album is Adele’s general awareness that she is maturing, growing older, and that the process involves change. “Hello” clearly reflects on how her life has caused her to become distant from old friends and acquaintances, but “A Million Years Ago” and “When We Were Young” emphasize that time is a major factor in these changes. “When We Were Young” states her fears of what growing up means most clearly: “We were so sad of getting old / it made us restless / I'm so mad I'm getting old / It makes me reckless.” The song is an attempt to regain the past, but the nostalgic sadness is clear. “Cause I’ve been by myself all night long / hoping you’re someone I used to know.” She can’t even be sure that the person she’s addressing is the person from her past that she's looking for.
“A Million Years Ago” dwells on nostalgia and how Adele can’t relate to the people in the community where she grew up with the same familiarity now that she has become famous. “I try to think of things to say/ like a joke or a memory/ but they don't recognize me now / in the light of day.”
Although her old neighbourhood has a strange feeling for her now, Adele is clearly aware that it has shaped her and continues to influence her. This is expressed metaphorically in “River Lea.” The song takes its name from the tributary of the Thames that runs through North East London, where Adele grew up. “It’s in my roots, in my veins / in my blood and I stain every heart that I use to heal the pain.” It’s her way of saying that where and how she grew up leads her to hurt those she loves. In fact she uses the song to preemptively apologize for the pain she is sure that she will cause.
It’s unsurprising that all the songs on the album are emotionally-driven and put Adele's rich and agile voice on display, but they are also quite musically varied. Not one song sounds like another and this makes the album stand up to repeated listening very well. It also seems like there is a kind of balance between seeing both the positive and negative effects of relationships and the aging process and the past. Adele’s music will always possess an emotional intensity. Her voice is well suited for expressing intense feeling. Four years of maturing have allowed her to use that intensity to express positive feelings like love and devotion. “Sweetest Devotion,” the song that concludes the album, is a welcome arrival after a roller-coaster of an album. It’s an unabashed, all out celebration of an empowering relationship where happiness is possible.
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