"Hello, it's me," Adele sings in the first lines of 25's album opener. "I was wondering if after all these years you'd like to meet."
She's vainly beseeching an old flame, but Adele's legion of fans answered her question emphatically: Yes! After waiting four years since the release of 21, they snapped up nearly 3.4 million copies of 25 its first week in the U.S.—a staggering sum that obliterates NSYNC's 15-year-old first-week sales record of 2.4 million for 2000's No Strings Attached.
Adele, following Taylor Swift's lead, decided against releasing 25 to streaming services (such as Spotify), which no doubt boosted her sales total. But that restrictive strategy alone can hardly explain the album's stratospheric sales figures. There's a lot more going on here than merely capitalizing on a media move only megastars like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé can risk these days.
No, Adele has that alchemical, once-in-a-generation appeal that connects viscerally with a vast audience of lovelorn fans who, in this case, seem eager to submerge their emotions in an 11-track collection of soaringly beautiful yet still wildly weepy piano ballads.
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Adele tells a former beau, "I've forgiven it all" on "Send My Love (To Your New Lover"). "Water Under the Bridge" brims with ambivalent turbulence as Adele alternately longs for the man she loves so much to tell her that he feels the same way ("The only thing I want is your love/ … Say that our love ain't water under the bridge") even as Adele says she wishes he'd just leave if he can't commit ("If you're gonna let me down, let me down gently/ … What are you waiting for?/You never seem to make it through the door"). On "Love in the Dark," Adele tells someone she's apparently leaving (because of his emotional distance), "Please don't fall apart/I can't face breaking your heart/I'm trying to be brave/Stop asking me to stay."
One of the very few love songs on the album that doesn't involve a sundered relationship is "Remedy," on which Adele promises, "No river is too wide or too deep for me to swim to you/Come whatever, I'll be the shelter that won't let the rain come through/Your love, it is my truth/And I will always love you."
The most agreeable song on the album is undoubtedly the last one, "Sweetest Devotion," which Adele told USA Today is "all about my kid," her 3-year-old son, Angelo. She says of her boy (whose laughter can be heard at the outset of the track), "I find it funny that you're the only/One I never looked for/There is something in your loving/That tears down my walls/ … You will only be eternally/The one that I belong to." She says of her love for her son, "The sweetest devotion/Hit me like an explosion/ … Just remember that come whatever, I'll be yours all along."
Most of 25's tracks involve romances that haven't worked out, leaving Adele to pine for better times in the past. The result is an album that feels profoundly melancholy, with Adele's confessional style meandering from honest vulnerability into more despairing emotional territory. "When We Were Young," for example, finds her reconnecting with yet another old acquaintance years after their adolescence, which prompts her to revisit those memories and to wish she could stop time ("My god, this reminds me/Of when we were young/Let me photograph you in this light/In case it is the last time/That we might be exactly like we were/Before we realized/We were sad of getting old").
"All I Ask" mingles those mournful themes with a sexual component ("If this is my last night with you/Hold me like I'm more than just a friend/Give me a memory I can use/Take me by the hand while we do what lovers do/'Cause what if I never love again?"). And "River Lea" delivers a preemptive apology to a new guy for romantic mistakes Adele hasn't even made yet … but just knows she will. "Send My Love (To Your New Lover)" includes a sensual memory ("You put your hands on, on my body and told me/You told me you were ready") and implies a sexual relationship in an ex's new relationship as well. Suggestive—sometimes even a bit rough, sexually—descriptions of a woman's appetite for her man turn up on "I Miss You" ("I want every single piece of you/ … Treat me soft but touch me cruel/I want to teach you things you never knew, baby/ … We play so dirty in the dark").
Adele's love for her son on "Sweetest Devotion" is undeniably a beautiful thing—except when she hints that her parenting style includes fostering the attitude that their family is exempt from life's normal rules ("The way I'm running with you, honey/Means we can break every law"). It's also a bit disconcerting when she sings about him, "You're my light, you're my darkness/You're the right kind of madness/You're my hope, you're my despair/You're my scope of everything, everywhere," a level of "devotion" some family experts might suggest takes things a bit too far.
It's not hard to understand Adele's appeal. Her songs—fleshed out by her smoky, old-school, old-soul voice—embody all kinds of paradoxes. Strength and vulnerability. Love and loss. And the desire to close the distance with people we know deep down will never love us in the way we need them to.
In other words, these are adult songs, maybe even middle-age songs, full of life experience in all of its emotional facets, sad tales of couples who just couldn't quite make things work. Adele is only two years older than Taylor Swift, but she sounds eons older, as if she's lapped her nearest pop music competitor by several lifetimes.
And she knows it. On "River Lea," Adele admits, "Everybody tells me it's 'bout time that I moved on/And I need to learn to lighten up and learn how to be young." I'm not holding my breath on that, because Adele's entire musical brand is built on the narratives that imply age as they strip mine her world-weary soul for every bit of regret, lament, melancholy, disappointment and (sometimes sexual) woulda-coulda-shoulda she's ever experienced.
Even though Adele is by all accounts quite content in her relationship with her 41-year-old fiancé and partner of nearly four years, Simon Konecki, you'd never know it from listening to 25.
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Biggest No. 1 debut in the modern SoundScan era with 3.38 million units sold opening week.
XL Recordings, Columbia
November 20, 2015