It took so long to arrive that she actually turned 27, but Adele’s 25 is finally upon us. How does it sound, now that she’s collaborating with fellow pop juggernauts on the level of Max Martin? We break it all down, from the organ-backed torch songs to the up-tempo anthems (to which you could almost dance), below.
You’ve no doubt heard this record-shattering single and “Someone Like You”-style ballad a couple dozen times already, but I’ll just note that it makes as much sense as an opening track as it did as a comeback song. For fans who are no doubt planning to give this album a few spins over the years, it will seem fitting that each time they hit play it will greet them with “Hello, it’s me/ I was wondering if after all these years/ You’d like to meet.”
2. “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)”
25 might start out safe—Slate’s Chris Molanphy described “Hello” as designed to feel for Adele fans like a “favorite sweater from past winters”—but the next two tracks are among the most daring and contemporary-sounding. This one is Adele’s collaboration with pop genius Max Martin, the most successful songwriter since some dudes named Lennon and McCartney. If you didn’t know who Martin was, don’t worry: Adele somehow didn’t, either.
Adele got involved with Martin after she heard Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” on the radio and asked who produced it, and it sounds like she asked Martin to help her craft a similar vibe: Like “Trouble,” “Send My Love” is a kiss-off to an inconsiderate ex. This time, however, the song comes with less dubstep on the chorus and more island rhythm. Look for this one to be one of 25’s biggest singles.
3. “I Miss You”
While “Send My Love” has Adele teaming up with someone new, this song has her reuniting with an old collaborator: Fellow Londoner Paul Epworth, who also produced and co-wrote Adele’s megahit “Rolling in the Deep.” “I Miss You,” however, is more of a bedroom-ready slow jam than you might typically expect from Ms. Adkins. As wailing, spectral vocals and tumbling drums pile up over the underlying church organ, things even get a little kinky: At one point she tells her lover, “Treat me soft, but touch me cruel.”
4. “When We Were Young”
When I wrote about the live debut of this torch song (co-written with Tobias Jesso Jr.), a sort of sequel to “Hello,” about running into an old flame at a party, I wondered whether the studio version would be more adventurous, given that it was produced by the eclectic Ariel Rechtshaid. Turns out that it’s just like the taped performance, however, complete with backing choir, bass guitar, and faint electric guitar over mournful piano. The studio version does pull back a little bit on the vocals, which is good: In the live performance, Adele’s powerful vocals threaten to drown out just about everything else.
Nope, it’s not a Black Crowes cover. The first of many stripped-down songs on the album, this love song, co-written by sapmeister extraordinaire Ryan Tedder (“Apologize,” “Halo,” “XO,” as well as Adele’s own “Rumour Has It”), is just Adele and her piano. But who is it a love song to? As with “Hello,” this is another one where she may be singing directly to her fans. Here’s the chorus, which pretty well summarizes what a lot of Adele fans look for in her music: “When the world seems so cruel/ And your heart makes you feel like a fool/ I promise you will see/ That I will be your remedy.”
6. “Water Under the Bridge”
If there’s any track on 25 that would have fit right in on Taylor Swift’s 1989, it’s this one. With its huge gated-reverb drums, muted arpeggios on the electric guitar, and almost Prince-like falsetto, its an ’80s power ballad through and through. Though co-writer Greg Kurstin, who also brings his signature oddball percussion to the bridge, worked on 1989’s similarly ’80s-inflected “I Wish You Would,” “Water Under the Bridge” might be closest to “Out of the Woods.” Like that song, its about a love affair that lingers in uncertainty and feels like its veering out of control, and it even comes with its own sylvan metaphor: “It’s so cold in your wilderness/ I want you to be my keeper/ But not if you are so reckless.” Of course, the central metaphor is a different one, with Adele pleading with her lover to “Say that our love ain’t water under the bridge.”
7. “River Lea”
Inspired by the real-life river in north London, where Adele spent the earliest years of her life with her mother (her father left the family when she was very young), this song has her singing about the ways in which her childhood is still with her. As she sings on the chorus, “I can’t go back, but the reeds are growing out of my fingertips/ I can’t go back to the river.” It’s an odd, evocative image, and Danger Mouse’s ghostly arrangement, which samples Adele’s voice to create the choir-like backing that accompanies the opening church organ, matches it.
8. “Love in the Dark”
Another piano ballad, this time a breakup song, “Love in the Dark” layers an orchestra’s worth of strings over a simple four-chord progression as Adele slowly breaks her lover’s heart. For the third track in a row, she’s also really into the water metaphors: In this case, she and the poor sap that she’s breaking up with have grown so that “it feels like we’re oceans apart.” Strongest line: “I’m being cruel to be kind.”
9. “Million Years Ago”
Another sparse, slow ballad, this time over flamenco-flavored acoustic guitar, “Million Years Ago” finds Adele singing regretfully about all that she’s lost as she’s grown older. (Reminder, because Adele seems to forget it: She is still only 27.) Still, she might be singing about the price of fame: “When I walk around all of the streets/ Where I grew up and found my feet/ They can’t look me in the eye/ It’s like they’re scared of me.”
10. “All I Ask”
Whoa, Adele goes disco! JK, it’s another sad piano ballad. This one, co-written with Bruno Mars and produced by his crew the Smeezingtons, is about looking for one last night with a lover, before they go their separate ways, to “do what lovers do.” It doesn’t claim to be original (“I won’t say a word/ They’ve all been said before”), but instead aims to be a Whitney-style vocal showcase for Adele, complete with a climactic key modulation at the end. Whether or not that’s your cup of English breakfast tea, Adele is more than up to the task.
11. “Sweetest Devotion”
25’s second half gets a little dark, but this is the light at the end at the end of the tunnel. After five straight songs about heartbreak and insecurity, 25 ends on a triumphant, upbeat and up-tempo country-tinged anthem, with Adele finding the one person whom she will “eternally … belong to.” A lover? Nope, this time it’s her young son (that’s his voice sampled at the track’s beginning). If the lows were low, at least the highs are high.
Correction, Nov. 19, 2015: This post originally misidentified Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” as “I Knew Your Trouble.”