This new Adele album, it’s a cashmere sweater. It’s warm, and comfy, and sumptuous in a way that disguises how ordinary it is. On a gray afternoon, you might put it on and look out the window for a while. It’s something you get for Christmas from someone who doesn’t know you very well.
It’s going to sell 2 million copies right out of the gate and it’s expected to break records after that. That’s what they’re saying. So as a mass-culture artifact arriving in the universe, this album’s significance is preordained, which is pretty much the only weird thing about it.
It’s called “25,” the British superstar’s age when she started working on these somber songs, and it follows “21,” a blockbuster from 2011 that suggested Adele’s relatability might be her greatest asset, even greater than her voice. (Her album titles speak to her big-time relatability, too — the forward-thrust of time is the one thing that binds literally everyone alive.)
And now, after nearly five years away from the spotlight, she’s staying the course, asking the world to sing along, or feel along, or at least get swept away in it. On one blustery new ballad, “Remedy,” she does it by making her lightweight lyrics feel fraught: “When the world seems so cruel/And your heart makes you feel like a fool/I promise you will see/That I will be . . . your remedy.” And that’s the trick, right there. Her virtuosity draws us in, but the song ultimately feels empty enough for everyone to curl up inside of it.
Plenty of music works this way. Why does Adele get to be pop’s most unimpeachable champion? The obvious answer is her voice, a powerful, pleading instrument that always sounds familiar, but still manages to feel impressive. It’s also the kind of voice that we’ve been trained to value as “good” and “strong” and “classic” after listening to 50 years of American soul and 14 seasons of “American Idol.”
On “25,” it often sounds like a stiff wind pushing through a light fog. Her collaborators — Max Martin, Danger Mouse and Bruno Mars among them — scoot their drums and pianos to the side, leaving the singer’s voice exposed in a way that suggests vulnerability, but actually allows for fantastic displays of power. That’s the other trick. Even when Adele emotes quietly, she sounds loud. Even when she sings about romantic devastation, she projects composure.
You can hear it best when she’s explaining her heartbreak alongside co-writer and producer Greg Kurstin. The album’s first single, “Hello,” warms up to its soaring, feel-bad chorus with Adele singing, “There’s such a difference between us, and a million miles.” On another collaboration with Kurstin, “Million Years Ago,” she swaps distance for time, plaintively taking stock of her regrets while an acoustic guitar tiptoes in the background.
On these two standouts, she almost sounds like an heir to Sade, another British soul singer who slips annihilating pictures of loss into elegant sonic frames — and then disappears into her private life for years of artistic silence. But in other ways, Adele is simply an heir to soul music writ large. And not just “soul” as a style but as a memorial act, as a way to remember pain.
Funny then that this album’s lack of style and flash makes so many of its songs feel forgettable, just as it makes Adele appear entirely disconnected from the current pop mood. Which some listeners might hear as uncorrupted purity. Which dovetails neatly into Adele’s celebrity narrative as a charming young British lady who values modesty and grace. Which are qualities that are generally difficult not to admire.
“What’s been going on in the world of music?” she recently asked an interviewer sent from Rolling Stone. “I feel out of the loop!” Maybe this was a candid blurt, or maybe it was another attempt to wrap her arm around her listenership. Adele isn’t paying much attention to what this overwhelming world currently sounds like, and maybe you aren’t either.
And so our principled disengagement from the maddening present should be rewarded with, what exactly? A vat of tears?
If that’s the big proposition here, “25” is merely another totem built to remind us that human sadness will always feel more universal than human happiness. It’s a gracious, obvious, expertly sung album filled with truths we already know. It elicits no new feelings, produces no deeper knowledge.
Also, it’s the music that we’ve elected to circulate among millions, millions, millions, millions of listeners. If that doesn’t bruise your heart more than anything poor Adele could ever sing, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.