Pop music has been one marathon conversation this year. The big records—“event releases” I think they call them now—don’t stand alone, they bleed into one another as part of a constantly evolving, kind of wanky, cultural discourse. Talking about Nicki leads to lecturing on Taylor and before you know it, you’ve got five different essays on Jezebel all dealing with Drake’s subtle misogyny when blinging that cellphone. Our 2015 understanding of what comprises a successful song is markedly different from even two years ago. Now we recognize the biggest hits as ones accompanied by an entourage of memes, thinkpieces and constant online references rather than those attaining a spot on Radio 1’s A-list. Relevancy is the goal for the toppermost of the poppermost; remaining prominent and relevant in a nebulous and fickle online world. So where does this leave an artist who refuses to make social small talk?
Until last month, Adele hadn’t given an interview in three years, nor did she wade into any Twitter scraps or appear at any events unless she was there to accept an award. She recently revealed that she doesn’t even have a personal Facebook. So how can she have a place in the global pop music group thread when she doesn’t even check her phone? As Aimee Cliff pointed out in the Fader recently, “Hello” is set, “in a pre-social media universe: one in which she’s been calling the person she’s trying to reach on their landline for years (when I call you never seem to be home).”
But 25, isn’t an album of hot takes, it’s an album of reflection, with Adele musing on the all-too-swift passage of the years, beginning with “Hello”, a song which has been repeatedly referred to as an ode moving on when it lyrically suggests the exact opposite. Constantly ringing your decades old ex asking to meet up and “go over everything” is not the behaviour of someone who’s at peace with the relationship. It’s a good job Adele doesn’t have Facebook; this level of non-chill is what gets you blocked.
It sets the tone for a record unwilling to revisit old haunts IRL, preferring instead to sit at home and retrace those steps emotionally. ”River Lea” is a thumping, hymnal ode to Tottenham’s finest waterway. “I can’t go back” she wails, perhaps unaware of the recent regeneration in the area. When she does step outside, she’s not a fan of how things have changed, singing, "When I walk around all of the streets/Where I grew up and found my feet/They can’t look me in the eye/It’s like they’re scared of me" on “Million Years Ago”.
Which is not to say she’s incapable of moving on. "Send My Love (To Your New Lover)" comes courtesy of mega-pop producer Max Martin and it sees Adele make her biggest concession to the modern musical landscape. ‘"Just the guitar? Ok cool," she says before launching into a slice of Scandinavian sugar sweet pop, that recalls early Lykke Li. Layered harmonies and Adele’s trademark quirky pronunciations are heavily present and it’s an intriguing look at a side we’ve rarely seen thus far - even 19 didn’t contain anything this unabashedly pop. The track instils a curiosity as to what she could be capable of if a willingness to experiment a little more was present.
“When We Were Young” tackles rose-tinted retrospectives, with Tobias Jesso Jr at the helm but veers way too far into mum’s-had-a-sherry territory, despite a gorgeous spiralling vocal. (Can we just take it for granted at this point that Adele’s voice sounds amazing on all the tracks? She could sing the phonebook, being the last person in Britain still to own one). It’s a track about Adele losing touch with her past, which again comes across a little unrelatable for the non-fame afflicted Facebook generation who still have the joy of seeing every ‘Immigrants claiming our benefits- THE TRUTH!!!!’ post that Georgia from Year 9 Food Tech shares on her page.
The truth is, we’re very aware of Adele’s strengths. Adele is aware of Adele’s strengths. And she’s not an envelope-pusher. She will never follow a record-breaking album of soul-pop with a LP of leftfield electronica. And why should she? Adele makes sturdy, warm-hearted songs to induce teary phone calls with your best friends or nostalgic walks around your hometown.
Nevertheless, when listening to 25 you’re struck by the realisation that you had no real preconceptions of what it would consist of. There was only the certainty that it would be Adele - by now a time-insensitive genre that denotes the specific type of sweeping balladry and uptempo soul-pop that comes from the entire history of pop music but also nowhere at all. She’s managed to transcend our accepted ideas about fame and become an eschatological figure, producing music that is stubbornly resistant to any attempts to ground it in a temporal context.
But despite ticking all her usual boxes, there is an unmistakable and acute sense of isolation that seems to be at the heart of 25; pulsing blue veins of sadness and loss leading to it. And even during those warmer moments, you can’t help but feel something darker is on her mind. Her decision to remove herself from the web has been mostly lauded as ‘refreshing’ but here it seems to manifest itself as intense loneliness. We’re all aware a life lived totally online isn’t healthy but what if cutting yourself off completely from global conversation has the same effect? It’s also easy to forget that Adele was also a parent and committed partner by 24, two roles that further serve to alienate her experience from that of her peers. That sense of what is the right age, and what is the right time, hang over Adele. A modern and old-fashioned popstar who appeals to both grandmas and daughters, but feels both a bit too young and a bit too old for her age.
For three years, the North London artist has lived this life of relative isolation, the only choice available to her after she’d decided she wanted to remain out of that prying public eye. It meant no parties, no stumbling down the street and, judging by this record, a settling of the extreme emotional turbulence of earlier life. When you’re at home with your family there’s unlikely to be thundering heartbreak, but there's also little chance of any ecstasy. So the feelings that Adele has come to rely on for this record, are nostalgia and regret - wondering if you’ll ever love in the same way, and how things would have worked if they’d played out a little differently. And though they are interesting and reflective ideas, they just don’t pack quite the same hammer blow as being in the middle of a life-ending break-up.
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