The lead single from Adele's new album, 25, is nearly a parody of how we'd expect the singer to sound. "Hello" is this breathy, dramatic arrangement, produced to suit ballroom chops. Never mind that Adele's authority is exclusively vocal, and that all the pianos, upright basses, and synth string sections in the world would relegate to obscurity against the wattage of her voice. If you strip Adele's singing from, say, "Turning Tables," you're left with just a dizzied piano that couldn't tell you what hit it.
21, so filled with bellicose songwriting, is perhaps the most confrontational, cathartic, and romantically instructive pop album since The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. On 25, Adele demurs; she's rethinking things, alone, brainstorming text messages that she'll never send. This is "Marvin's Room," the album.
On "Hello" and "Send My Love," Adele is surgically passive-aggressive: Due to unfiltered desperation on the former track and a spiteful chant on the latter. On "All I Ask," she's a balladeering fiend: "Give me a memory I can use," she pleads. Even in her most decisive declarations of independence, "Send My Love" and "Love in the Dark," Adele succumbs to gravity, back into bed with the enemy. On "I Miss You," one of the album's very strongest songs, Adele whimpers a pre-chorus that encapsulates these warring urges: "Baby, don't let the lights go down."
Adele is no wimp, however, and her choruses are no less grand than a fan would hope. The singer hits a mean Carly Simon lick on "When We Were Young," a piano bar lamentation that thrashes rather like an Elton John composition. It's the quirkiest song on the album. It's also the wildest blossom of Adele's voice, a scorched growl ("My God, this reminds me...") that then peaks as a brutal piccolo in the final measures. "River Lea" is another strange success: What begins as a grassy hymn then shifts into syncopated twang, thus amounting to Adele's jazziest sensation since "Best for Last."
"Remedy" is the lone holdover from Adele's earliest, fraught songwriting sessions for 25. Coincidentally, it's the album's one true scratch, with its winded piano, marathon platitudes ("and your heart makes you feel like a fool"), and some excessive cooing in the style of Mariah Carey. It's a cold and conventional song on an album that's otherwise bucking the gala protocol of 21.
"I'm the least insecure person I know," Adele recently told Rolling Stone, providing not just a rebuke of Blur frontman Damon Albarn's turncoat gossip about her in the press, but also a clue to decoding the singer's uncanny balance of injury and might. Even as she's suffering the romantic disadvantage, Adele infuses the songs of 25 with a love-drunk cockiness, tossing wine by a loose wrist as she reconsiders these departed men. Or maybe it's Adele who's the ghost. After having offered up such hungover confession, time and again, Adele then excuses herself from scrutiny, celebrity, and all that. Adele requires privacy and distance, yet she never can say goodbye.