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The progression of Adele’s albums mirrors the pioneering British television documentary series Seven Up!, which each seven years revisits the lives of a group of people who have been tracked since childhood in 1964.
Adele’s version began with her debut 19 in 2008, released when she was a teenage graduate from a stage school in her home city, London. Then, three years later, came 21, which was themed around a break-up. Now it is time for 25, which follows marriage and motherhood.
Another set of figures hovers over her albums alongside her age. 19 sold 7m copies, a vast amount for a newcomer. But 21 dwarfed it. It shifted 30m units, a freakish quantity at a time of record industry crisis. It was a throwback to the glory days of Madonna, Michael Jackson and — the singer whose style Adele most closely resembles — Whitney Houston.
These two sets of numbers, Adele’s age and her sales figures, collide on 25. The expectation surrounding the album is immense: there are hopes it will single-handedly reverse a five per cent decline in US album sales so far this year. Like a James Bond film, it is a moneymaking franchise, a sure bet in an economically precarious age. But what room does that leave 25 to develop musically from 21?
“Everybody tells me it’s about time I moved on,” she sings on “River Lea”, a standout track. Produced by Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, it takes one of soul music’s most abiding images, the river — a modest east London waterway in this case — and turns it into a stirring number about being unable to escape the past. Backward-looking but not outright pastiche, the soulful organ threaded through the song connects the River Lea to a mightier antecedent, the Mississippi.
“Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” also finds Adele nimbly traversing the distance between past and present. Produced by Max Martin and Shellback, leading architects of modern chart-pop, it has a lilting, singsong beat over which the singer brushes away the memory of a dead relationship, as though consigning 21’s break-up to history. “We gotta let go of all of our ghosts,” she chants.
But 25 could do with more exorcism. Opening track “Hello”, produced by Greg Kurstin, reprising his role on 21, is a formulaic belter in which Adele foghorns her greetings to an ex from “the other side”. An unexpected hint of Tom Waits’s “Martha” is washed away by slick but predictable big chord changes, a gestural kind of emotion.
Other ballads are classier. “Love in the Dark”, produced by Sia collaborator Samuel Dixon, has a small orchestra of violinists accompanying a plush piano melody that unfolds as smoothly as a Rolls-Royce limousine. It is pop engineering at its most luxurious. Adele inhabits it with ease — rather too much ease.
Despite its diaristic title and Adele having co-written all its songs, 25 lacks a personal touch. “I did pretty much write an album about being a mum, but that’s pretty boring for everyone who isn’t a mum [so] I scrapped that,” the singer has said. The one song about parenthood, “Sweetest Devotion”, is couched in boilerplate gospel-pop that could equally apply to romantic love. The desire to capture the widest possible constituency trumps all.
The singing goes some way to compensating for the generic sentiments. Even when belting out “Hello”, Adele doesn’t overdo the theatrics. Her timing is impeccable, as with the way she punctuates the word “breathe” in “Remedy” with a sighing breath. The result is a slickly assembled commercial pop product sung by a technically exceptional vocalist. Perhaps it is greedy to want more. But if 25 is to be judged by more than its sales figures, we should want more.
Listen to the podcast ‘Adele finds path to success without streaming’