Thu, Nov 26, 2015 - Page 11 News List

CD reviews

By Jon Caramanica and Ben Ratliff  /  NY Times News Service

25, by Adele.

25, Adele, XL/Columbia

Absence has a way of ossifying an idea and amplifying a legend. Those have been gifts for Adele, who has just returned after a break of almost five years with her third album, 25.

Her place in pop music held steady as she retreated from the spotlight, toward a more nourishing life that includes motherhood. And time has fixed the idea of Adele’s sound, leaving a brightly blinking beacon for her to return to.

To that end, 25 manages to sound all of a piece, even as the songs veer from phenomenal to tepid. In places, everything comes together. Million Years Ago bursts with melodrama and perhaps has a quiet echo of Mariah Carey’s My All amid the flamencoesque guitar.

Hello, the album opener, begins with melodramatic, earnest piano (as do several other songs), followed by an invitation: “Hello, it’s me/ I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet.”

This is Adele at her savviest: Hello functions as an extended hand to old fans and also a seeming chapter-closer on the relationship that defined 21, her last album.

And by midsong, she is also at her best: Even when she is singing at her most powerful — “Hello from the other siiiiiide, I must have called a thousand tiiiiiiimes” — she’s never anything other than calm.

That is Adele’s gift. On songs like I Miss You and Water Under the Bridge, she renders the most acute pain with severe clarity and composure. If her singing wasn’t so loud, it would be tranquil. In places, on Hello and Million Years Ago, so total is her chill that she recalls a far less technically accomplished but even more steadfastly serene singer: Lana Del Rey.

Pop moves and mutates, but Adele more or less does not. Naming her albums for different ages in her life doesn’t indicate radical changes from era to era, but rather reinforces the reassuringly slow march of time. Her music is like time-lapse photography of a busy street: Small parts move, but the structure of the whole picture remains essentially intact.

What sets her apart, though, are those steady parts: a gargantuan and smooth voice, deployed with casual control and a cathartic fluency with heartbreak.

On 25, she remains a plainly declarative singer (and songwriter — she has a writing credit on every song on this album). She’s emphatically first-person and doesn’t get belabored or obstructed by metaphor or concept. She also offers little in the way of emotional surprise: For Adele, distress is restorative. (The album closes with Sweetest Devotion, a blast of optimism so ecstatic and saccharine it threatens to upend the 40 minutes of anguish that preceded it.)

Where 21 made gestural concessions to contemporary pop music, 25 largely does not. It comes closest on Send My Love (to Your New Lover), which was produced by Max Martin and Shellback. They haven’t varnished Adele, the way they have with so many before her. The song begins with a stray studio comment from Adele — “Just the guitar. OK, cool” — before about a minute of acoustic guitar and what sounds like hand-played percussion. This is Adele the pop refusenik, still intact.

But then the thickly layered harmony vocals and fuller arrangement arrive, faintly echoing the thunderous drop in I Knew You Were Trouble, by Taylor Swift, another singer whom Martin and Shellback have compressed for pop consumption and extruded new things from. There is a Swiftian moment, too, on the song’s chorus, when she sings “lover” like a cheerful taunt. — usually Adele’s message is one of shared melancholy; it’s refreshing to hear her sass. (It’s also more in line with her off-record persona; she exudes off-the-cuff charm. At a taping for a television special at Radio City Music Hall on Tuesday night, she was chipper and affectionately profane, joking about kicking off her shoes and commenting that since she had to have her nails removed so she could play guitar, she had “potato fingers.”)

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