The relatively low-key – compared to some – arrival of Adele‘s 25 on 20th November, shone a bright light on a few of the challenges faced by modern music criticism.
With little need for pre-release hype, her label kept details of the album fairly vague and copies close to their chest. As a result, 25 landed in stores just a few days before what remains of the British printed music press went public with their ‘Albums of the Year’, leaving no room for what was always going to be the biggest selling album of 2015. With commercial success guaranteed, the critical response might almost be a side-line; even so, it’s hard not to think that an entry in Q‘s listing, for example, might have been likely, unless it turned out to be a turkey of Christmas-sized proportions.
It wasn’t, but security around 25 meant that critics were only given a couple of days to formulate their responses – a problem not limited to this one release of course – leading to a certain uniformity to the reviews. Sometimes, deadlines can produce great, instinctive writing but that tends not to be what the broadsheets – or, indeed, most online outlets – want, so most reviewers went for more obvious angles: the pressure of following up 21; the contribution of outside writers and producers like Max Martin; Adele’s new-found domestic situation.
21 looms large over its follow up. A record breaker even after just a few day’s sales, David Smyth in The Evening Standard suggests 25 will be her On Every Street to 21’s Brothers In Arms; no matter how good it is, it’s unlikely to hit its predecessor’s heights, especially since streaming has fundamentally clouded the reality of what constitutes a ‘sale’ over the last few years.
Alexis Petridis at The Guardian does best with the limited time available, and comes up with just about the only genuinely funny image in all the reviews we read, picturing her still “planted on her ex’s lawn at 3am, tearfully lobbing her shoes at his bedroom window.”* He also nails the moments when 25 shakes off its younger sibling, like on ‘Million Years Ago’ when he references Charles Asnavour or ‘I Miss You”s “tiny hint of strangeness”, the little details that might encourage the largely indifferent (like myself) to actually investigate.
Overall, while 25 has secured mostly positive, if not glowing, responses, reviewers are frustrated at what might have been. Never mind the difficult second album, if you’re still working a formula by album number three, critics are unimpressed. These frustrations are most evident when it comes to Adele’s lyrics, which are “wearily well-trodden” according to Gareth James in Clash. Kittie Empire wants Adele to lighten up (“… you want to wrench the woman away from the ivories and order her a jug of margarita.”) while T.Cole Rachel in Spin highlights the discrepancy between 25 and the “funny, sarcastic, and fantastically charming (Adele). It’s perplexing that her songs so rarely reflect this part of her, largely eschewing any sense of fun in favor of a grandiose seriousness.”
While it’s clear critics want Adele to be more adventurous sonically, asking that she abandons what has made her such a success so far – her ability to connect emotionally with listeners – seems a little like criticism for criticisms’ sake. It would be like asking Nick Cave or Leonard Cohen to write a breezy summer anthem. Adele just being Adele seems to be working just fine so far.
* A nod also to Amanda Petrusich for “Even your most adorable aunt—the one who loves a Yankee Candle—will eventually drain her flute of sparkling wine, lean forward, and be like, ‘Dog, this shit is corny.'”