I’ve just listened to Adele’s newly released album “25,” which a lot of people expect to be the bestselling album of 2015—which is the reason I listened to it, I guess, even though I don’t particularly care for Adele as a musician. The album strikes me as loud, overproduced, emotionally unsubtle, lyrically and musically repetitive, and predictable, but who cares? For the legion of fans addicted to Adele’s majestically vulnerable contralto, her simultaneously nuanced and grandiose vocal stylings, and the raw, rainswept emotional landscapes of her songs, “25” will doubtless satisfy a four-year craving for more of the anguished nostalgia that characterized Adele’s last record, “21.”
For me, the context of “25” is more interesting than the album itself. As every listener of popular music well knows, Adele composed 2011’s “21” in the immediate wake of a painful breakup, channeling all of her roiling emotions—regret, vengefulness, loneliness, wistfulness, hopelessness—into songs that examined her failed relationship and its distressing aftermath. She performed these songs with passionate authenticity, and the result won the Grammy for Album of the Year and became the bestselling CD of both 2011 and 2012, as well as the bestselling digital album of all time.
Following the success of “21,” Adele made a ton of money, found a new boyfriend (with whom she reportedly still enjoys a steady and fulfilling relationship), had a baby, lost weight, quit smoking, and adopted a vegetarian diet. Her life seems to be going pretty well these days: one would imagine that, as a 27-year-old mother with millions in the bank, a long-term romantic partner, a child to care for, and a flourishing career, she probably hardly ever has time to think about some brief dysfunctional romance she inhabited as an insecure 20-year-old. Having achieved artistic catharsis four years ago through a series of 12 critically acclaimed songs that successfully transmuted her personal trauma into a universal document of human heartbreak, she probably has, by now, moved on.
Isn’t it odd, then, that “25” is in fact almost exactly the same album as “21”? Despite a few suggestions of some greater distance between the singer and the source of her apparently eternal heartache, “25” is, if anything, even more like “21” than “21” was: more emotional, less bouncy, more inclined to express itself in the form of a lovelorn ballad. And material that, in the context of “21,” could conceivably have been received as “honest” and “unfiltered” now seems only histrionic and ridiculous.
Why is Adele still thinking about “someone I used to know”? Are we really supposed to believe her, at this point, when she muses, “They say that time’s supposed to heal ya / But I ain’t done much healing”? Or “Everything just takes me back / To when you were there / And a part of me keeps holding on / Just in case it hasn’t gone”? Don’t we all go through bad relationships at age 20? Does it still really seem like such a big deal?
Adele’s situation feels sort of analogous to that of a young rapper who first makes an album about poverty and hardship, violence in the inner city, dealing drugs to get by—and then, as a result of said album, becomes wildly successful, moves to a mansion in the suburbs, appears in TV commercials for multinational soft drink corporations, and yet, even years later, continues rapping, in the present tense, about selling crack to put food on the table: somehow his art is incapable of evolving to address the matter of his evolving life, and to some degree this brings into doubt whether even his early work was a document of lived experience or whether it was, all along, an imaginative rephrasing of preexisting musical tropes that just happened, for a time, to sync up more or less with the stuff of which his real life consisted. The rapper’s world has changed, but his taste in music hasn’t, and we can now see more clearly which of these two things was the true wellspring of his own artistic output.
Does it matter if Adele’s new songs exist to repeat the commercial success of an established formula, rather than to express continuing real-life heartache or regret or doubt—assuming that, deprived of “backstory” (i.e. knowledge of Adele’s post-2011 personal and commercial triumphs), we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between her earlier songs and her current ones, executed as they are with equally convincing vocal ardor? Can an artistic object be “disqualified” by information not contained within the artistic object itself?
The answer to both of those questions is, I think, supposed to be “no.” The biographical context of “25” matters only to those of us for whom it corrects an earlier failure of discernment that was itself owed to “information not contained within the artistic object.” Where we once were blinded by “context”—when Adele’s marketing team assured us, amid the release of “21,” that she had just gone through a horrible split and therefore was singing directly from her heart—it now aids us, given the obvious discrepancies between her life and her art, in seeing what we should have seen from the beginning, inside the music: that her art is contrived British blue-eyed soul full of embarrassing borrowed locutions and deliberately foggy and therefore “accessible” melodrama distantly winnowed from the actual drama of the lives of 20th-century black women in the United States.
I guess she can sing, though.