Monday, November 23, 2015

album review: '25' by adele

The year was 2011. The club boom was nearing overexposure in the mainstream, and flashy electro-pop artists were ruling the airwaves. Country was awash in lightweight southern pandering that would degenerate into bro-country, the Young Money crew were ruling mainstream hip-hop, and the indie rock scene was on the precipice of exploding. It was a year in flux, with nobody quite certain what would come next...

In other words, the timing was damn near perfect. People had known about Adele before - a soul singer beloved by the Grammys, known for a remarkably poised if a little tepid debut album that had given us 'Chasing Pavements' - but in 2011 she blew the pop paradigm apart. And while some would inevitably accuse her of middle-brow pandering and that her music was ultimately not as experimental or ground-breaking as many made it out to be - which in retrospect is kind of true - it's also hard to deny that 21 resonated on a deeper level with an enormous audience. And it wasn't just listeners - who made the record the best selling album of the year two years running, bringing impossible profits to Adele's indie label XL - or the Grammy wins and critical acclaim - the success of 21 marked a major shift in pop music. The club boom collapsed, old-school R&B and neo-soul surged back into the mainstream, and pop stars tried to work heavy percussion and reverb to follow the sound even if they couldn't match the emotion.

And here's what I find perplexing: as much as I can see why Adele's 21 resonated with audiences - it's accessible, different without being too weird, powerfully emotive yet with enough class and restraint to get uncomfortable - the album as a whole is a harrowing listen. It's dark and heavy, furiously bitter and heartbroken, and the more you dive into Adele's subject matter the more the complicated swirl of loneliness, rage, regret, and grief becomes hard to bear. And yet even with that it's one of those albums that might work better in pieces than as a whole - there are some wild tonal shifts, a few deep cuts can't quite match the power of the singles, and there are instrumental choices that don't quite fit with the overall atmosphere. In other words, a damn good album, maybe even a great one, but I'm not sure I'd say that it would make one of my year-end lists.

And now four years later, Adele is finally back with 25 - and while I was definitely excited, I had some reservations here. For one, I saw the list of producers: Greg Kurstin, Ryan Tedder and Paul Epworth made sense, they've been working with this brand of reverb-touched pop music for years now, and I could maybe even understand Danger Mouse and The Smeezingtons, given Adele's influences, but Max Martin and Shellback? They only show up on one song, but it was enough to suggest that Adele might be going in a very different direction... and in a sense that's probably the right choice than trying to directly imitate what she did on 21. But the larger point is that Adele is returning to a pop world that she helped shift, and while opening tracks like 'Hello' had a ton of promise, it's hard to follow-up a record that shattered the paradigm like 21 did. There was a lot riding on 25 - did Adele pull it off?

Well, here's the thing: no matter what I say, it's inevitably going to be a bit controversial, so let's cut to the chase: is 25 good? Is it better than 21? No, it's not as cohesive, raw, intense, or loaded with powerhouse songs that can compete with her best. In short, Adele delivered a mature, emotionally honest, solid selection of tracks - and I really wish the majority of them were more interesting or dynamic. As such there's no one glaring weakness on this record, just a series of points that don't quite work as well in contrast. And the frustrating thing is that the majority of her audience won't notice or care about those little pieces.

Want proof? Let's talk instrumentation and production, the latter of which becomes important here given the list of producers Adele brought in. For starters, the production style does not feel cohesive from the track-to-track - when you have the enormous gothic presence of 'Hello', easily one of the best tracks thanks to the huge reverb-touched mix with the bells and backing vocals, switching down to a stripped back, kind of clunky Max Martin and Shellback produced track with sparse strums, a muffled beat, and more percussion than melody is jarring as hell. It's easily the weakest track on the album, and shifting back into another reverb-and-organ saturated cut with 'I Miss You' is more proof the sequencing of this album is really wonky. And normally I wouldn't complain about this except that not only does the usage of differing vocal effects means Adele can sound dramatically different on each song, there are some styles of production that are a much stronger fit for her vocals. Like Lykke Li - and yes, the comparison between I Never Learn and 25 is inevitable, and the melodies are not as strong on 25 - Adele works well on darker, slightly grittier, more worn and aged production, which is why Paul Epworth and Greg Kurstin do just fine here. Hell, when Brian Burton aka Danger Mouse shows up on 'River Lea' drawing on gospel and blues with the organ, wall of backing vocals, and great low groove, it's one of the best tracks he's produced in years! Now the reason why this works is twofold: Adele always comes across as an older presence than her age, which works well against this production; and she's got the full-throated vocals that need a melody or groove with more body and presence. That's why I don't really mind the greater influx of piano ballads - with the exception of the decent song 'Remedy', but that's more an issue of Ryan Tedder's production not being as immersive - where the acoustic ballad 'Millions Years Ago' feels a little lacking even despite the Kurstin production credit, and even with the nice vocal layering and melody that reminds me a bit of Evita. Again, not a bad song, but when you compare to 'Hello' or 'River Lea' or 'Water Under The Bridge', it's not quite as strong.

Part of this is the mood of the album: despite Adele giving a hell of a vocal performance - and of course she sounds excellent - this record doesn't have the same sense of raw drama and intense power that underscored 21. And in a sense it's not meant to, especially when you dig into the writing and themes, but it also means the stakes on this record feel lessened, and when you don't have the huge emotional highs that came from songs like 'Rolling In The Deep' or 'Set Fire To The Rain' or 'Turning Tables' or 'Someone Like You', it's hard to be gripped in the same way. Now don't get me wrong, there are points that get damn close: I've already talked about 'Hello' on Billboard BREAKDOWN, but when you have the seething off-kilter rhythm of 'I Miss You', the rubbery melodic groove on 'Water Under The Bridge' with the huge drums, or the guitars and strings anchoring 'Sweetest Devotion', you've got a sound that can really work for Adele. Coming back to the piano ballads, I don't think any of them are bad songs, but I see very little about tracks like 'Remedy' or 'All I Ask' that make them feel like distinctive Adele songs - in the latter case, you could give the track to co-writer Bruno Mars, place it next to 'When I Was Your Man', and it would be an easy fit. The problem comes when you don't have those huge raw emotional highs to sweep you in, anchored by a sound that works well for Adele, the contrast between a great Adele song and a passable one is all the more evident.

And a big part of this is the songwriting and themes. And let me start by saying I get what Adele is doing here: where 21 was explosive and raw, taking place mid-breakup, 25 is melancholic and reflective and more mature, seeing more sides to the story. And I really do like a lot of the framing on these tracks, because Adele's never shy about putting herself in a morally complex light and it's definitely true she has matured, from the lost contact of 'Hello' to the wistful reminiscence of 'When We Were Young' when that ex comes back into her life. And songs like 'Water Under The Bridge', where the break-up is inevitable but an assurance is wanted that the relationship wasn't nothing, to the warning she gives a new prospect on 'River Lea' about the darkness in her past, these are songs that show real maturity. There are still moments of insecurity and pain, like on 'All I Ask' where she hopes for one last time or 'Love In The Dark', where she's the heartbreaker in a relationship that's just run its course, but it's tempered and controlled. And yet for as much as I like the maturity in the content, the songwriting itself hasn't really grown with it. And I mean that in terms of poetry and detail: so many of these songs feel very straightforward and plain-spoken in language and message that you kind of expect a more raw performance... and when that doesn't really happen, it lowers the emotional stakes. On top of that, the inclusion of 'Remedy' and 'Sweetest Devotion as songs for her young son are generally sweet but kind of muddy the thematic waters a bit. Yeah, it's a a working metaphor for growing maturity and I completely believe his birth was a factor, but when you have an album loaded with emotionally complex situations, having closure and maturity be a factor of children just strikes me as a little too tidy to really fit, especially when the steady encroach of time fits the mystique of her more abstract tracks a little better.

So look, I didn't dislike this album - I'm definitely going to recommend it if only because it's a few absolutely great songs that show where Adele could really take her sound. And you know, it's kind of inevitable that after the rollercoaster of 21 I should expect to be underwhelmed, because how do you follow that? And yet when I look at record with a similar thematic arc demanding maturity over time to get over relationship turmoil, like Beck's Morning Phase or Lykke Li's I Never Learn or Jhene Aiko's absolutely stellar Souled Out, they accomplished similar progressions with a more diverse sound, more cohesive production, and lyrics that poetically aimed a little higher, and I'm convinced Adele could have done it too. Despite all that, I stand by this album getting a very strong 7/10 and definitely a recommendation: fans will love it, and non-fans better get used to hearing it, because I can see this record spawning at least three more big singles. And honestly, that's not a bad thing.