Adele could’ve had it all, but only gets halfway

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“Everybody tells me

it’s ‘bout time that I moved on

And I need to learn to lighten up”

So sings Adele in “River Lea,” halfway through her new album 25. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that Adele’s previous two albums, 19 and 21, were about as joyful as getting uninvited to your own birthday party, so the advice is good — and Adele listened to it . . . partly.

25, the third album from the London singer-songwriter, is quite a bit cheerier than Adele’s preceding albums, both in subject matter and production. While the bread-and-butter piano and vocal tracks are still there, Adele has shown signs of modernization, with several tracks carrying a soul and R&B vibe.

The result is mixed. With a varied selection of tearjerkers and pop/soul anthems, there’s a song for everyone. As a whole, though, the album lacks consistency.

For convenience’s sake (read: laziness), I’ll split the album in two: the “pop” tracks, with a happier vibe, full of R&B and soul influences, and the “sop” tracks — simpler, vocal-focused tracks, usually about something sad.

“Hello,” the first track and first single off the album, is “sop,” and it’s Adele at her best. Using her distinct voice to perfection, the singer performs Olympic-worthy vocal gymnastics the way she so often has before. It encapsulates Adele’s appeal: horribly depressing lyrics set against a beautifully hopeful vocal.

However none of the ensuing ballads live up to the lofty bar of “Hello.” “Remedy” unfortunately breaks up the momentum that 25 builds through its first few tracks, with mediocre lyrics and a frankly boring piano part. “Love in the Dark” is better, but still feels out of place following the brilliant and groovy “River Lea.”

“When We Were Young” is one of the better-written and better-sung tracks on the album, and “Million Years Ago” features a gorgeous, Fleet Foxes-esque hook, but “All I Ask” seems barren and out of place against the groovier, more modern songs, and its key change at the end is pretty underwhelming.

The insistence on softer, vocal-heavy tracks is really a shame, especially considering that it’s the “pop” that Adele does wonderfully. “Send My Love” is a witty and catchy tune that shows Adele’s lighter, almost younger side, while “I Miss You” carries a Florence and the Machine-y vibe, with soaring, reverb-sodden backing vocals and booming percussion.

“Water Under the Bridge” is sure to be a radio hit with an insanely catchy and singable chorus, and “Sweetest Devotion” is a fitting end to 25 — it’s a song about love, but a happy one, and I can see it being a favourite at live shows for a while.

But with the divide between the two sides comes the problem.

I almost get the sense 25 was at one point a super modern record, full of daring and unique songs. Then, with about a week left, and worried people wouldn’t like the new direction, Adele banged out two or three run-of-the-mill piano ballads.

The ballads are lyrically and musically pretty mediocre. Yeah, Adele sounds great singing them, but they seem a bit of an afterthought, with most of the care and attention put into the groovier, fresher-sounding tracks.

It’s almost as if Adele is anticipating criticism. Go too poppy, and people will complain she’s forgotten her roots; keep too soppy, and people will complain not enough has changed. 25 spends a lot of time going back and forth between the two sides, and it gives the album a disjointed feel. It’s a tough line to walk, and, although Adele walks it a lot better than most, the album suffers for it.

25 is a really, really solid album, and it doesn’t by any means lessen Adele’s standing as the best female vocalist in the world (fight me, Beyoncé). Its main weakness is that it could’ve been so much better. As weaknesses go, that’s not half bad.

3.5/5

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