ADELE: 25 (2015)
1) Hello; 2) Send My Love (To Your New Lover); 3) I Miss You; 4) When We Were Young; 5) Remedy; 6) Water Under The Bridge; 7) River Lea; 8) Love In The Dark; 9) Million Years Ago; 10) All I Ask; 11) Sweetest Devotion.
"Hello. It's me. I was wondering if after all these years you'd like to meet, to go over everything". Kind of a humble start for a mega-star whose millions of fans have been dying for years to see just where Adele's journey of spiritual growth would take her next. And if press release stuff and Wikipedia rumors have anything to them, this journey was actually in danger of coming to a premature end — she had expressed a desire for early retirement, either due to pressures of family life or because she had an inclination that, perhaps, 21 had her at the top of her game and that it would have been so much cooler to go out on top.
And yes, it would. Most good stories in the 21st century tend to have crappy sequels, and with 25, our little fairy tale, too, seems to have exhausted the limits of good taste and creativity and turn into its own crooked mirror image. Honestly, I was not expecting that any follow-up to 21 could match the cohesive greatness of that record — but neither was I expecting such a direct, express jet trip to Crapsville. And what makes matters so much worse is that 21, like it or not, had a great educational value: through those songs, millions of people had access to solid melodies, real soul, and genuine instrumentation, not to mention a chance to get interested in Time Out Of Mind and Disintegration. For a brief moment out there, it seemed like here was a really strong-willed, independent woman artist that could lead the masses — or even, with a stroke of luck, dictate her own terms to the corporate music industry.
But no dice. Enter 25, a thoroughly disappointing, bland, formulaic record of big «adult contemporary» ballads, produced by no less than eleven different producers, co-written by Adele with no less than the same number of different songwriters, and featuring no real spiritual growth whatsoever. The only new emotional strand is that of nostalgia and forgiveness — the Adele of 21 seemed preoccupied with her current troubles, the Adele of 25 seems to be looking for artistic inspiration largely in past troubles ("they say that time's supposed to heal you, but I ain't done much healing"); no wonder, since it does not look like she'd had a lot of troubles for the previous four years. A happy marriage, a son, a well-secured financial present and future, plenty of charity work — no wonder that now, in order to keep up the broken-hearted image, she has to turn her mind back on the past.
And it does not work. We could, of course, put most of the blame on the producers, who did their best to dress all of these melodies in the most generic rhythms and sonic textures; but I believe that no one is more to blame than Adele herself, who just so clearly did not need to put out this album — it is so utterly unnatural, so strenuously pushed into unnecessary existence, that the only frickin' question is: WHY? Goddammit, if you are so obviously content with your life, why do you consider yourself obligated to put out a collection of dark, morose, monotonous ballads with conventional frameworks and clichéd hooks (or «non-hooks»)? Just because you are «Adele, the Queen of the Dark Heart-Tug?» and people would not buy your records if you preferred to cover ʽBanana Boat Songʼ instead?
The opening piano chords of ʽHelloʼ may aspire to genius simplicity, but I wonder just how many by-the-book balladeers have already made my ears insensitive to their effect — and the «depth» that opens up when the powerhouse chorus hits you is phoney, a well-rehearsed production trick more than a genuine reflection of one's state of mind. By the time the song kicks into full gear, electronic hums and drum machines and cavernous echoes dominating the waves, you don't seem to remember the difference between Adele and Celine Dion any more. Is this it, then? That «maturity» by the age of 25 means completing your transformation into a generic «Diva»?
It does not get much better when the songs get upbeat, though. ʽSend My Loveʼ starts out with a quiet, but well-audible "just the guitar!" instruction, which turns out to be a ruse — fairly soon, we get a trip-hop backing track of the teenybopper variety, aerobic backing vocals à la Beyonce, and an annoying synthetic chorus — "we gotta let go of all of our ghosts, we both know we ain't kids no more", on a track that has the most kiddyish arrangement of 'em all. No wonder, that, since it was co-written with Max «I Fucked 'Em All, Figuratively Speaking» Martin, the man to whom you turn when Mephistopheles is unable to hold up his end of the bargain.
There is only one song on the entire album, as far as I'm concerned, that strives to break out of the plastic carcass — the gospel-influenced ʽRiver Leaʼ, produced by and co-written with Danger Mouse; although the arrangement is still spoiled by a robotic rhythm section, the organ adds a nice touch, the chorus is catchy, and the main hook is wond'rously found, with Adele hitting a compassionate note on the "blame it on the River Lea, the River Lea..." passage. Which makes me wonder if, at this point, she couldn't have made a fine 21st century Mahalia Jackson — at least singing about going back to the river seems to bring out the human in her far more effectively than trying to rile herself over some forgotten past lovers.
Alas, one such bit of success does nothing to alleviate the «dull aching pain» from listening to one forgettable ballad after another — sometimes exacerbated when the song in question is ʽMillion Years Agoʼ, a truly awful acoustic «tear-jerker» that sounds as if it's been pulled directly from one of those whip-out-yer-hanky Euro musicals like Notre Dame De Paris: listening to Adele crooning "I miss the air, I miss my friends, I miss my mother, I miss it when life was a party to be thrown..." just makes me cringe in its absolutely cheap corniness.
How the heck did this happen? How and when and why did the master songwriter and performer of 21 turn into this replaceable Kelly Clarkson-meets-Vanessa Carlton type plastic doll? Sure, we still have «The Voice», but it's obviously not just the voice that made 21 such an outstanding achievement. My natural guess is simply that the artist... has nothing more to say. That's just it. She said what she had to say — she made a wise decision that she would not be saying any more — she was forced to come back because she has no other profession, because the fans and the record executives cry for more, she placed herself in the hands of studio pros, she wrote those songs without properly feeling them, she delivered them because that was what she was expected to do. Oh, and she even got plenty of rave reviews — «style instead of substance» is all the rage nowadays, and when you're a big star with a properly run publicity campaign, naturally there'll be plenty of people falling over your lyrical clichés and thrice rehashed Serious Chords. But hey, you can always rely on good old Only Solitaire to cut the crap.
In other words, here is one more case of an artist metamorphosing into a pseudo-artistic machine. If your reaction is, "well, she was never all that good anyway", I respectfully disagree: 19 was nice and human, warts and all, and 21 was as close to a genuine, sincere masterpiece as commercially-oriented «serious pop music» ever gets. But this — this is as good a pretext as any to change that old adage of «never trust anybody over thirty» to «never trust anybody over twenty five», as more and more artists these days flash by like the one-album wonders (two-album wonders at best) they are. Oh sure, there's always some fickle hope that the next album (31, if that particular arithmetic progression continues to be respected?) will make things right, but who wants to spend the next six years in fickle hopes? Thumbs down, case closed.