Back in 2013, Adele was riding high. Fired up after wrapping a studio session with Ryan Tedder, she finally felt over two years of writer’s block and on a roll with the follow-up to 21. The world was waiting, and Adele was ready to reward everyone's patience. She began eagerly recording in a rush of excitement, thrilled that being back in the studio felt right again. The songs poured out of her. It was easy! It was intoxicating! The album would, surely, be out in time for Christmas. When she sent her manager what she'd come up with, his response, as she recalled in an interview with i-D, cut straight to the point: "This isn't good enough." Adele took his advice, and it would be would be two and a half years before she’d release new music.
It’s not surprising that Adele needed a second opinion, but that she recalls the story with such candour. She could easily have led the world to believe her talent is effortless, with creativity available on tap. Her honesty about the trial-and-error of 25’s recording process renders Damon Albarn's subsequent comments even more jarring. Speaking to The Sun (and reported here) after working with the singer on a handful of ill-fated studio sessions, the Blur frontman dismissed the process as "very middle of the road," before adding, "the thing is, she's very insecure. And she doesn't need to be, she's still so young."
Albarn's comments hit a nerve with Adele. "I’m the least insecure person I know,” she told Rolling Stone. “I was asking his opinion about my fears, about coming back with a child involved—because he has a child—and then he calls me insecure?" To Adele, talking openly, and indeed singing openly, about fears, regrets and vulnerability is second nature. It doesn't preclude a sense of security or empowerment; in fact, it's vital for it.
On the defiant “Someone Like You,” Adele showed that her vulnerability wasn’t about playing the victim. On 25, she’s actually having fun with it. My heart is a valley, it's so shallow and man-made, she sings in the stomping “River Lea.” There's a stark self-deprecation in this lyric, but it's underwritten with a sort of wry shrug. We all have flaws, but sometimes they’re so intrinsic that there's not much we really can do about them: It's in my roots, it's in my veins, she cries. So I blame it on the River Lea. In other words, sorry not sorry.
Adele’s most poignant lyrics on the album aren’t about a relationship at all—they’re about herself. "A lot of stuff in my life has changed, and not all because of my career, just because stuff changes, you get older," she told host Nick Grimshaw on the U.K.'s BBC Radio One a few weeks ago (reported here). "I found myself yearning for my past, for no reason specifically other than... it had gone. It had happened, and I missed elements of it. I felt like all of us were moving on."
Likewise, the most striking moments of 25 aren’t about heartbreak, but revolve around an intense nostalgia. As she also told Grimshaw, “Hello” isn't a message to an ex-partner, but one to "everybody that I love." It forges a dialogue between past and present, and one that's being constantly compromised by bad connections, both literal and metaphorical. I'm in California dreaming about who we used to be / When we were younger and free / I've forgotten how it felt before the world fell at our feet.
Throughout the ten tracks that follow, this nostalgia finds itself a home. “When We Were Young” moves with a growl between the restrained lull of Adele's voice and its vast vibrato. Let me photograph you in this light, she asks, so desperate to hold onto a transient moment that, before it’s even over, she finds herself missing it. On “Million Years Ago,” her voice reaches almost gravelly depths before jumping into a higher register as she sings, I miss the air, I miss my friends / I miss my mother, I miss it when / Life was a party to be thrown / But that was a million years ago.
But this exhaustive list—I miss, I miss, I miss—is, in its own way, also a catharsis. With it, she expunges her pent-up regret, and emerges both lighter and stronger. “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” is a sheer, syncopated joy, which clutches nostalgia in a brief embrace before sending it on its way. We’ve got to let go of all of our ghosts, she sings, We both know we ain’t kids no more.
There are tracks on 25 that tread the same ground as 21—one of loss and regret, though here it’s often for an intangible past rather than a broken relationship—but they do so without ever becoming wholly consumed. When the sense of loss reaches saturation point, she wrings it out and moves on. I wasn’t ready then, she sings on the album’s closing track, I’m ready now. She’s dwelled on the past long enough; it’s time for the present.