Adele 25

IMG_0841I’ve often dismissively described the last 20 years of female (and sometimes male) pop music as “Insert Singer Here.” Not that you’d mistake Britney for Rihanna or Rihanna for Katy or Katy for Selena or Demi or whoever the next cute young pop starlet the music business – and by the business I mean the industry – jams down our throats sells us[1]. But one can easily imagine each of them singing the others songs. In fact, in 2009 Beyonce´ and Kelly Clarkson wound up with hit songs to basically the same track written by Ryan Tedder, Halo and Already Gone, respectively.

While most of these Insert Singer Here songs are catchy, captivating earworms, there’s also a boring, cookie-cutter sameness to them. One after another of these songs come at us, giving off the feeling that all the artist is doing is singing an impersonal sheet of words handed them by the songwriters (plural these days) over a producer’s hook-laden backing track[2]. The songs grab your attention but rarely your soul.

Thank goodness for Adele.

25 is decidedly a pop album and decidedly different from its predecessors, 19 and 21. 19 is a stripped-down blue-eyed soul record almost exclusively written by Adele. 21 is a modern R&B album written primarily in collaboration with Paul Epworth, a songwriter who’s worked with numerous big-name pop and rock acts (U2, Florence and the Machine, John Legend). But it also included two collaborations with pop superproducer Ryan Tedder – Turning Tables and Rumor Has It, the latter an infectious song whose driving beat could have easily have found itself on an album by Tedder’s band OneRepublic.

For 25 Adele included songs with synthesizers and drum pads – obligatory for current pop music – and assembled an all-star team of pop songwriters/producers that are largely responsible for today’s radio hits: Max Martin (Backstreet Boys, Britney, Taylor, Katy), Greg Kurstin (Kelly Clarkson, Pink), Danger Mouse (who helped the Black Keys develop a radio-friendly sound), Bruno Mars, and once again, Ryan Tedder.

So why doesn’t 25 sound anything like what’s on the radio? Answer: Adele’s voice. Unlike so many of today’s songs where the artist’s voice is simply accompaniment for the backing track, Adele sings with such an emotional intensity that she can actually make us believe that Old McDonald having a farm is a sorrowful existence or that ba-baing black sheep are in pain for having wool. She’s come back from her 2011 vocal chord microsurgery with less rasp but with more ache and power, and is more emotive than ever.

But 25 also doesn’t feel like anything contemporary. Certainly, the force of nature emotional impact of Adele’s singing is a big part of that. But it’s also because Adele is uniquely able to project her emotions onto us so that we experience them as ours. In stark contrast to Britney with her “It’s Britney, bitch[3]” attitude or Taylor with all her A-list friends or Katy with her pin-up girl looks, Adele recently said to Rolling Stone, “I think I remind everyone of themselves. [I’m] relatable because I’m not perfect, and I think a lot of people are portrayed as perfect, unreachable and untouchable.”[4] Indeed, I have a personal recollection of Adele talking pictures with her fans (including this muser) before the doors opened for her show, hair undone, no make-up, and shoeless with unmatched socks. Talk about being reachable and relatable.

So even when Adele does what everybody else is doing, it’s so refreshing because it sounds better and connects to us better than what everybody else is doing. Although each song bears the thumbprint of its songwriters to the stars – you can easily imagine Bruno Mars singing All I Ask, which he co-wrote – it’s impossible to imagine anyone else doing what Adele does with these songs.

In describing 25, Adele’s frequent collaborator Paul Epworth says, “This album feels like it fits in maybe more with the cultural dialogue [than 19 and 21] instead of being anachronistic to it. It’s almost like she’s trying to beat everyone at their own game.”[5]

Indeed, while collaborating with the Kings of Insert Singer Here Songwriting, Adele has created an album of pop songs into which only she can be inserted. That she has done this and will once again be the biggest artist on the planet is, like 21 and 19 before it, another remarkable achievement.

And, no, it’s not 21. An artist’s album of a lifetime isn’t a career move. It’s something that just happens. That’s what happened with 21. And it’s not likely that there will be 85 hit singles on 25 as there were on 21 – this album is probably too ballad-laden for radio programmers to keep playing its songs until we are sick of them (except for Hello).

But 25 is definitive in its own way. It’s a brilliant reminder of how powerfully evocative pop music can be when you don’t plug just any popular singer into just any catchy song.

Grade: It’s Adele’s world. I don’t presume to give the owner of the world a grade.

My favorites (for now): the ubiquitous, yet always moving Hello; I Miss You (it’s dark; I like dark); River Lea (it’s dark; I like dark); Lay Me Down (bonus track from the Target Deluxe Version)


[1] And in the interest of full disclosure various works by My Girl Britney and Rihanna may be found in my CD collection.

[2] Both of these points are revealed in the fascinating new book, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook.

[3] The oft-quoted opening to her song Gimme More.

[4] “Hiatt, Brian (November 19, 2015). “She’s The One”. Rolling Stone.

[5] “Hiatt, Brian (November 19, 2015). “She’s The One”. Rolling Stone.

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  1. […] [2] See my review […]

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