Before Adele even announced her third studio album, 25, the record was predestined to be a blockbuster: Her sophomore effort, 2011’s 21, had sold over 30 million copies worldwide, after all. Crafting an album under such pressurized circumstances can be no easy task, but 25, shows no signs of creative strain. In part that’s because Adele’s songwriting and production collaborators add the requisite contemporary pop touches, and then smartly get out of the way.
Consequently, her ideas and, especially, her incredible voice—a bluesy-soul instrument weathered like slightly tarnished brass—take center stage. The Greg Kurstin-co-written smash “Hello” is a stunning display of orchestral grandeur, electro-pop minimalism and singing-in-the-shower belting. Paul Epworth, 21’s co-producer, returns for the Florence and the Machine-esque “I Miss You,” which boasts prominent, tribal-like drums and keening melodic wails. The Danger Mouse-associated, U2-circa-mid-’90s-reminiscent “River Lea” marries gospel-inspired keyboards and vocal inflections to shimmering production. And unsurprisingly, the Max Martin and Shellback collaboration “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” is Adele’s most contemporary-sounding song yet: Fluttery acoustic guitars and a loping-trot tempo adorn lyrics about letting go of an ex, which she trills with just the right amount of eye-rolling exasperation.
As the latter song implies, 25 has no shortage of songs along the entire romantic continuum, from turmoil to contentment; the record also balances out its radio-friendly moments with stark piano ballads. But 25’s strength is Adele’s ability to hone in on universal vulnerability. “Oh, I’m so mad I’m getting old,” she sings on the torchy “When We Were Young,” her voice cracking like a soul singer three times her age. And “Million Years Ago” has just simple Flamenco acoustic guitar as accompaniment as she describes the tangible weirdness and unexpected byproducts of global fame: “I miss my mother, I miss it when/Life was a party to be thrown.” These unvarnished confessions ensure Adele (and, by extension, 25) isn’t consumed by commercial precedent or her love life.