You are half expecting to see Steve McQueen on a Vespa,
or at the very least, Pierce Brosnan in his forties,
wearing a white tuxedo…
Don’t underestimate pop music. Jazz may be the coolest thing, soul and blues may be underground passages reaching to the depths of our darkest, rawest self, but pop? Pop is the music of our youth, and the music we most associate with memories. It is the soundtrack of our falling in and out of love, and Adele’s brand of pop music in particular, is the soundtrack of our break ups. She can always be trusted to take us there, to that place of sorrow and loss, even if it’s been years since we last visited it.
Now–a-days not many things are considered “an event”. We are constantly bombarded with “new’ info (80% of which involving cat videos, brides falling down –always satisfying – and buzzfeed-like quizzes: “Which Muppet R U? / “Are you a Ross or a Rachel?” et.) that demands our attention in a multitude of media platforms. As a result, very few things really cause us to be prompted into anticipation, and a new album coming out, is not something for which we are holding our breath (unless one is a thirteen, and the album is One Direction’s) But Adele’s “25” (her third album) did the trick. It stopped us dead in our tracks and broke the Internet while doing it! That video clip from the track “Hello”, with her calling a guy from her past, the scenes from their relationship and break up captured in sepia tones, the Winter landscape with the windy lake and the abandoned phone booth, and her heavily mascaraed eyes looking directly at the camera, are already part of pop culture history.
It is no wonder then that the minute the video clip of “Hello” appeared on Youtube, it sprang all sorts of exultant as well as funny reactions on both sides of the Atlantic. (Not to mention that it got 27.7 million views in the first 24 hours of its appearance, reaching a billion in its first week of release, which translated into a 3.38 million copies sold!) Sir David Attenborough for example, was asked to narrate the video in the manner of his Nature documentaries; Ellen Degeneres played out a sketch pretending to be at the other end of that phone call; Miss Piggy from the new Muppet show reprised the video with her usual panache; James Corden from the Late Late Show created a Halloween parody; while Jimmy Fallon and the Roots sang with her, using children’s musical instruments. Even the cast of the SNL show paid homage to the song in their Thanksgiving skit, with Matthew McConaughey who was that week’s quest star, dressed as her. Not to mention the endless parodies and covers by wannabe singers and comedians, including a number of ones juxtaposing Adele’s “Hello” with Lionel Richie’s own “Hello”…. (Though one has to note that when it comes to hopeful singers, the uploading of their own covers of the song, just hours after it was out, is not a sign of how good they are. It is a kind of vampirism: they should have at least waited until the actual creator of the song had had her day in the Sun, before they claimed theirs… )
There are many songs that moved us, which came out in these last couple of years (Hozier’s “Take Me To Church”, James Bay’s “Let it Go”, Ed Sheeran’s “Make it Rain”, Sia’s “Chandelier”, Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” , James Arthur’s “Recovery”, Labrinth‘s “Jealous”, come to mind), but let us be honest: we don’t much care for the rest of the tracks on those records. But when it comes to Adele’ s music, every song demands and deserves our attention, and we listen to it like we used to listen to music back when we were young, when artists didn’ t focus so much on instant hits and singles. Back in the day when we would listen to say, the “Joshua Tree” album (“The Wall” of my generation) over and over again, finding each song to be equally good and eventually, turning them all into the soundtrack of our memories.
So yes “25” is a kind of an "event", and it’s a beautiful album. In terms of production, it is more “polished”. Stylistically, the Montown, the Jazzy, the Country subtle influences of “21” are hardly there, but she adds some new colours to her palette: A “Florence and the Machine"-like quality in “I Miss you” , a gospel influence in “River Lea” and “Water Under the Bridge”, but this is still a record with her own brand of powerful, Chanson Française-like, old school, elegiac ballads. And even though she is happier in her personal life, (she found love, she had a kid), this is still an album that speaks mainly about break ups, and the murky waters of relationships gone sour.
“Hello” , the first single, is of course the front-runner. It is the big song of the album, in the manner of how “Chasing Pavements” was for “19” (her first album), and “Someone Like You” was for “21” (her second album). And it is the type of song that you will want to play over and over again. (Preferably in the proximity of a box of Kleenex…) The roles are seemingly flipped here: she is the one who has done the leaving, caused the heartache, but apparently she doesn’t really refer to a lover. She reaches instead out to a younger iteration of herself “from the other side” - hence the flip phone and the land lines which have made a come back in the video clip. The song sets the tone lyrically for the whole album: reconciling with one’s self, rather than reacting to how you’ve been hurt by the Other. Her voice soaring on the big notes, desperate to make amends, to seek forgiveness, to heal her pain (“I’aint done much healing”) is breaking our heart. The outcome can be predicted with certainty: revisiting the past is for her, as for all of us, necessary but also futile, an emotional dead end - there’s always nobody at the other end of that line. Our younger self cannot be reached and forced to be wiser…
“A Million Years ago” on the other hand, with just a gently plucked guitar accompanying her, is a gem of a song that will have you choking up for a completely different reason. Stylistically, it is a “The Windmills of Your Mind” type of song, that you would hear at the opening credits of a 60’s–like, cat burglar movie. (You are half expecting to see Steve McQueen on a Vespa, or at the very least, Pierce Brosnan in his forties, wearing a white tuxedo…), but as soon as she starts singing, you realize that this is actually not another love song. She sings about what it means to deal with fame, and about her longing to go back to the familiar place of her youth, and one suspects of her days of anonymity and care free existence, back when people could still “look her in the eye” Poor little rich girl you may suggest, but I dare you not to cry when you first listen to it…
“All I ask”, which was co-written with Bruno Mars, is another heart wrenching song about the final night before a separation. Acoustic, with just piano accompaniment, gentle and naked, it stands up there with “Turning Tables” and “Take it All”. While “When we were Young”, which was co-written by Tobias Jesso Jr., takes us back to that old “kill-me-now-place”. She sings about coming across an old boyfriend and that familiar feeling of nostalgia and pain and regret that comes with that.
Her new songs are emotional, at times intimate, still melancholic, and still made exceptional by her soaring vocals, the warmth of her performance. Her voice is clearer, bigger than ever here, her razor sharp pitch amplifying every nuance, with the Amy Winehouse-like whimsy of “19” and the raspy raw quality of “21” almost gone. This is still an album about loss, regret and the kind of love that tears you apart. The only exceptions being the haunting and sensual “I Miss You”, and the sweet “Remedy”, (the only 2 “happy” love songs of the record), and the “Sweetest Devotion”, an upbeat track which was written for her son, and which lyrically is the one closest to the type of writing she mastered on “19”: words that cut through like bullets, instead of proper phrases. The theme that runs through the rest of the album, is one of heartache but also remorse, revisiting youth, reconciling loss, reckoning with one’s past, asking for forgiveness (from a lover, from one’s self) but also interestingly, given her age (she is only 27 after all) a sense of running out of time, a sense of getting older, of no longer being a kid, or even, of being “mad” for getting old!
People commented how they feel almost cheated by the melancholic mood that permeates the album. It is as if they are asking “she is happy now, why does she still sing about heartache?” As if her being a confessional artist precludes her from writing about loss, when she is not personally wallowing in self-pity at the time. (And she did warn us: “Just 'cause I said it, it don't mean that I meant it”) They forget that being an artist is about introspection, about being able to relive the past, and also having the tools to retrieve information from it. It is also about being able to identify with other people’s human experience: crime writers are not actually criminals, any more than comedians are immune to depressive thoughts (far from it in fact). As inspirations go, happiness is a pretty boring one after all… As for being too young to feel so old, this is more of a symbolic “aging” to which she refers, I feel: let us not forget she was concerned with the passing of time even in “21” when she was just that: 21… Artists anyway have a different understanding of time. They feel and live with the kind of intensity that “ages” you, that marks you…
Is “25” better than “21”? Not really, but only because “21” was such a phenomenon, each song feeling like a kick in the stomach. Any new work she creates, now or in 15 years time, no matter how great, is fated to always be compared with one of the best albums ever produced. By anyone! She is well aware of the fact as she said in an interview, but luckily, she did not let that stop her from creating new work. Even when she is treading on much too familiar ground in this record, or when her words occasionally run the risk of being a bit on the corny side (like on “Remedy” for example), she is saved by her beautiful vocals. Her voice a silken soulful whisper on the lower notes, roaring the lyrics on the higher tones, effortlessly streching vowels and amplifying emotions, making this an exeptional piece of work.
The bitterness is gone in “25”, and along with it, the edge perhaps, (that’s the thing about happiness: it steals your edge, waters down your fear and then as a result, your Art), but in many ways, this is the voice of a woman, the turmoil, of a woman (not of a girl just barely an adult, facing her first major heartbreak), matured by the fact that she dared to face the inner mirror, instead of breaking it in anger.
She had us at “Hello" -Art & Words Copyright © Fanitsa Petrou. All Rights Reserved. Any unauthorized use - copying, publishing, printing, reselling, etc - will lead to legal implications.
Written in November 2015.