Adele's '25': Great Voice, Mediocre Music

Adele’s new album is set to shatter sales records, but even her wonderful voice can’t shatter the glass ceiling of its middling songs.

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The CD cover image of "25," Adele's latest album, released by Columbia Records.
The CD cover image of "25," Adele's latest album, released by Columbia Records.Credit: AP

Two metaphorical sounds hover over Adele’s newly released album, “25,” which went on sale November 20. The first is the sound of the cash register. Sales data is spectacular (with more than 3 million in U.S. sales in its first week, it broke the first-week record of 2.42 million set by the American boy band *NSYNC in 2000 with “No Strings Attached”). Certainly it left the more recent mega-seller, Taylor Swift, in the dust – her latest album, “1989,” sold 1.3 million copies in its first week last year. I have to admit that it’s heartwarming to picture Swift’s face covered with dust. Nothing personal: It’s poetic justice when a singer who truly knows how to sing passes a standard, undistinguished vocalist.

However, the second sound is more interesting and less gladdening. It’s the sound of that great voice colliding with the glass ceiling. The glass ceiling of a great voice is the invisible barrier that sometimes appears in the case of a big disparity between the quality of the singing and the quality of the songs. That doesn’t always happen. A fine singer can take a good song and make it ascend to beyond good, to the precincts of the excellent. That’s fairly common, and it happened on Adele’s previous album. The problem begins when there’s a descent from the level of the good song to that of the mediocre. It turns out that to transform a mediocre song into a good one by means of extraordinary singing is a tougher mission than to transform a good song into an excellent one by means of that same vocal prowess.

Did Adele and her producers consider the glass ceiling of the great voice when they wrote and recorded “25”? Apparently not. In the four years since Adele’s “21” became the biggest-selling album of the century so far, her voice, or more accurately her image, 
transcended the familiar boundaries of the great voice, the wonderful voice, and shot into the stratosphere of the miraculous voice. Because what Adele’s previous album did commercially is a wonder, a miracle, alchemy. She and she alone took arms against the spirit of the time, against the technology that decimated the old model of the music industry, and emerged triumphant. “21” had global sales of 30 million albums: In an era in which people have stopped paying for music, that is in a certain sense to outdo the 60 million albums of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” It’s a supernatural event that was generated solely by Adele’s voice. And if Adele’s voice is indeed a miraculous, alchemical phenomenon, it is thereby immune to earthly barriers and passes through the glass ceiling.

But it’s not. Because it is not truly miraculous. It generated a commercial miracle, but it’s not a miraculous voice. It’s a fantastic voice in the earthly sense of the word, and it’s subject to limitations like the glass ceiling of the great voice. Try to find genuinely good songs on “25,” songs in which Adele’s splendid vocal cords are able to fly into the heights of supreme pop. It’s a tough task. You need a magnifying glass and plenty of good will. The new album consists mostly of middling songs that are performed wonderfully and collide time and again with the glass ceiling of the great voice (and possibly with another glass ceiling, too – namely the glass ceiling of the album whose predecessor had an ultra-phenomenal success, making it very difficult to escape the fate of the anticlimax).

The sense of anticlimax is especially pronounced in the piano ballads of “25.” This is Adele’s home ground, it’s what made her the world’s greatest singer, and obviously such ballads will be present in the new album, too. But the ballads on “25” are no more than standard fare (the single “Hello”) and in some cases simply banal (“When the world seems so cruel / And your heart makes you feel like a fool,” Adele sings in “Remedy,” with the tritest chords imaginable, and suddenly her voice loses something of its beauty and uniqueness). It sounds as though she’s singing like Adele. The only piano ballad that generates hope is “When We Were Young,” but even it doesn’t succeed in opening the dams of emotion, mostly because of an overly prettified arrangement.

In addition to the disappointing piano ballads, “25” contains forays into a range of musical arenas, some of which abut Adele’s natural playing field, others far from it. “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” is a highly unsuccessful attempt to engineer a sly pop song, which is too reminiscent, to Adele’s detriment, of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes.”

“All I Ask” is soul-schmaltz in the style of Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey; almost a guilty pleasure, but not all the way. “Million Years Ago” is something of a not-very-fresh French chanson. The better songs are the gospel-like “River Lea,” the rhythmic-hymnal “Water Under the Bridge,” the (relatively) coarse “Sweetest Devotion” and “I Miss You,” with its forceful but well-considered burst of chorus.

More than Adele misses us, millions of people in the world miss her. How many millions? We’ll find out when the sales data are released and also know which records the new album broke and which it missed. Those who are not impressed by the new album, and certainly not moved by it, can already be certain about one record: “25” is going to be the biggest-selling mediocre album of the 21st 
century so far.