In this time of Adele-mania — she’s back, she’s smashing records, she’s performing live again, she’s upending pop culture! — let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that the most popular recording artist of this decade also happens to be really, really good.
Adele makes easy-to-like pop music that is immensely, overwhelmingly popular, but also expertly written, masterfully performed and deeply affecting. Her crowd-pleasing aesthetic can sometimes lead music snobs to dismiss her song craft, but the U.K. singer has separated herself from the pack of post-Winehouse crooners by pairing her all-powerful voice with intricately arranged melodies and turns of phrase that cut to the core. A line like “Never mind, I’ll find someone like you” can be designed for millions while immediately recalling a moment in time for an individual listener; a song like “Rolling in the Deep” can nod to dozens of soul-pop touchstones while sounding distinctly of this day and age. This is Adele’s gift, and to overlook her virtuosity would be to shrug off what has made her a critical and commercial titan.
25, Adele’s long-awaited follow-up to the blockbuster 2011 album 21, operates in the same heartbroken vein as its predecessor, to great success. Lush balladry is still the name of the game, with the smash single “Hello” starting off the album on a sob-worthy note and songs like “When We Were Young” and “Remedy” pairing Adele’s tender cries with swelling piano movements.
The sadness sometimes receives a few new shades, such as the throttling drums on “I Miss You” and soft-rock guitar shimmy of “Water Under The Bridge,” and album closer “Sweetest Devotion” offers a warm ray of hope after the squeals of Adele’s infant son open the song. At its heart, however, 25 is a continuation of Adele’s last album, in both its style and strengths; the packaging for the physical copies about to fly off the shelves should somehow include, “If you liked 21, you’ll love 25!” These 11 new songs rely on the Fundamental Adele Principles, and once again comprise an enjoyable listen.
As you might have guessed, 25 does not include a dance song. That’s okay — the album doesn’t suffer because of it. But Adele has reached a point in her career in which a dance song, a real dance song, is a dire necessity. We have waited this long for a new Adele album, and while it’s great that she’s back, now, a new wait begins.
There are songs on 25, and throughout Adele’s first two albums, that flirt with busting out into full-fledged dance numbers. A tune like “Right As Rain” on 19 inspires humble two-stepping, and “Rumor Has It” strutted on 21 with a kicky beat. This time around, “Send My Love (To Your New Lover),” produced by pop maestro Max Martin, is the song that comes closest to inspiring spastic movement without ever fully blooming. What’s holding Adele back? She has collected a bouquet of “I Will Always Love You”-esque ballads over the course of her career; at what point do we get to hear her “How Will I Know”?
Make no mistake: this is not a suggestion for Adele to make an album with Skrillex (cheers, Bieber), or hit up Zedd for her version of “Break Free.” Adele should not, and will not, be goaded into embracing bass drops. This is simply an acknowledgement of a tremendous voice—a voice capable of easily selling millions of albums, in an era where hardly anything sells millions of albums—that’s been heard in more or less the same style since her debut. Adele spends 25 toying with different sounds, from the flamenco guitar of “Million Years Ago” to the organ of “River Lea,” but never goes for the jugular with something wholly and shockingly new. It’s okay to admit that that’s a bit disappointing.
I was chatting with a friend about the idea of an Adele dance song, and she didn’t think that it was realistic. “I don’t see that in her as a person,” my friend said. If that’s true, isn’t that a minor bummer? Adele is a towering music figure, but her catalog is imbalanced, leaning heavily on a stack of sorrowful (and, yes, powerful) ballads. She has accomplished so much so quickly, but she can become even more—and, if done in an artful, original way, an Adele dance song could be mind-blowing.
Think about the two aforementioned Whitney Houston songs, and how they each unlock different awe-inspiring elements of an extraordinary voice. Consider how Mariah Carey would unleash a “Fantasy” for every “Hero,” a “Honey” for each “One Sweet Day.” The list of modern vocal powerhouses—Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars—is a collection of artists that can deliver a moving ballad as well as a jam to kick off a wedding reception. Adele arguably possesses a more technically amazing voice than any of those artists, but so far, we have heard little variation in the way it’s used.
Perhaps we’ll hear a proper Adele dance song on an album this isn’t Adele’s, in the way Florence Welch strayed from Florence + The Machine to sing “Sweet Nothing” for Calvin Harris. Maybe 25’s “Sweetest Devotion,” slyly positioned at the end of the album, hints at a more upbeat fourth album from the singer. Or maybe Adele stays slaying ballads and selling millions until the sun burns out. Honestly, that doesn’t sound like the worst fate in the world. Adele’s 25 lives up to the hype, but also has me hungry to hear her voice in a new way. Maybe when she returns in four years’ time (or hopefully less than that), she’ll finally wanna dance with somebody.