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Review: Adele’s 25 is her least interesting album yet

Too much comfort food, too little creativity.

Adele, staring into your soul.
Adele, staring into your soul.
Columbia Records

By the time I finished listening to 25, Adele's first new album in almost five years, I'd completely forgotten that I'd been listening to it.

While there are a few standout songs, the tracks begin to blend together by the latter half of the album — or maybe they just become more expected, more routine.

Aside from a couple of percussive stabs at doing something different, 25 is so focused on serving up heavy helpings of Adele's gigantic voice that it rarely goes anywhere new — or even particularly interesting. The album might move you, but it will rarely surprise you.

After teasing that 25 wouldn't — and couldn't — be all heartbreak all the time, Adele still spends most of the album wallowing

The singer's first album, 2008's 19, was a heartfelt and brilliant debut, but 21 (2011) was on another level entirely, as she tore through her rage and grief in tones both clipped and soaring. Adele collected the wreckage of a tumultuous relationship, mourned it, and then set it ablaze.

And so she became the patron saint of heartbreak. Her devastating ballad "Someone Like You" became a go-to anthem for every shade of sadness, perhaps best summarized in the simplistic — but spot-on —Saturday Night Live sketch that quickly devolves into everyone bawling their eyes out.

But when talking about 25, Adele was quick to shut down the idea that she would keep singing the same kinds of songs about the same kinds of pain. "I don't think the record has a vibe of 'Whoo-hoo, I'm totally happy!'" she told Rolling Stone. "But with me being in a brighter space with my love life, will my fans be disappointed in me that I can't fix their broken hearts with a song that is brokenhearted? ... But at the same time, I can't write a sad record, like, for everyone else. That's not a real record, unless I am sad."

While 25 might not be "whoo-hoo" happy, and Adele says "sadness hits [her] in different ways than it used to," the new album still overwhelmingly feels like it's having a good mope. It kicks off with "Hello," a sweeping ode to a past relationship that went sour, and only occasionally takes a break from mourning thereafter as Adele continues to croon her way through devastation on the dreary "Love in the Dark," the paint-by-numbers ballad "When We Were Young," the maudlin "All I Ask." And the most frustrating thing about these songs is that Adele's voice is as strong as ever, but the tracks build in such predictable ways that she almost sounds ordinary.

25 isn't nearly as ambitious as 21

The thing is, 21 isn't the mope fest most people seem to perceive it as. In fact, the reason 21 is so good is that Adele leans into different styles that flatter her voice just as much as the soaring belt she lets loose in 19's "Chasing Pavements," 21's "Someone Like You," and 25's "Hello." On 21, she tapped into some Motown with the call and response of "Rumor Has It," syncopated her frustration in "He Won't Go," and crooned a heartfelt tribute in her cover of the Cure's "Lovesong."

But 25 feels less like progress than it does stasis. Adele and her team know her voice, and they know how to make it sound huge and unassailable. Where 19 and 21 found ways to match her voice to equally gutsy songs, 25 prioritizes showing her off, to increasingly diminishing returns. As Brooklyn Magazine's Caitlin White wrote, "It seemed like 25 could’ve been a pivot, a step toward self-actualization. Instead these songs feel like shadows of 21."

And you can see what White means as 25 makes halfhearted steps toward experimentation, only to skid away with a shrug. "Send My Love (to Your New Lover)" sends Adele's voice into rhythmic little loops that don't add much beyond empty whimsy. "Water Under the Bridge" features some motivational guitar that propels it forward even as, again, Adele gives in to the very "don't pretend you don't want me" theme she was purporting to avoid this time around.

"I Miss You," the song immediately following "Send My Love," is one of 25's standouts, mostly thanks to its rolling drums and background vocals that echo like ghosts. It's Adele by way of Florence and the Machine, with more of a jagged edge than her usual smoothness. And then it begins to repeat, and repeat, and repeat, until it finally gives up the race and just fades away, as if exhausted by trying.

"Sweetest Devotion," the album's final push and biggest standout, achieves the grandiose ambitions of "I Miss You" with ebbing tides of piano chords that almost pulse. It sprints with joy, purely triumphant. Adele embraces not only happiness but ecstasy — something that's unique not just for 25 but for any of her albums. As Brooklyn Magazine's White says, "['Sweetest Devotion'] encapsulates what the entirety of 25 could’ve been. ... Sadness has become too familiar, now it’s joy bringing that old rush back into Adele’s music."

Adele doesn't have to leave sadness behind — but it would be a waste to keep fixating on it

It's not that Adele necessarily had to rewrite her own script. As her mammoth album sales prove, people are buying what she's selling, and in droves. Her voice has ricocheted around the world to the point that if she wants to luxuriate in wrenching torch songs for the foreseeable future, she'll have a fan base waiting to applaud her.

Adele is so, so good at wringing music out of pain. But it's a shame to see her limit herself to mourning something lost, whether that's a relationship or just time. "Sweetest Devotion" shows that Adele can soar when she has the room to smile. And as satisfying as it can be to lose yourself to the melancholy of "Hello," it's thrilling to listen to her shift into a different gear, a different emotion, a different way of looking at the world and her own music.

That 25 only briefly visits new emotional territory is disappointing, because Adele has proven that she knows how to wade through the muck of emotions, the ambiguities of overall ache, to find some moment or emotional clarity worth crystallizing. She's already given her passionate voice to heartbreak so many times, and so well, that revisiting the same theme so intensely on 25 just dilutes its power.