22 November 2015

Is Adele Adkins25 the most over-hyped album of all time? Her last outing, 2011’s 21, sold over 30 million copies globally. The soulstress won a swag of Grammys, including the prestigious Album Of The Year nod. She was awarded a bloody MBE. Music industry expectations for 25 are feverishly high, with Adkins hailed a saviour in the digital era.

Indeed, Adele’s label, Richard Russell’s indie XL, prohibited advance streams of 25, and pulled listening parties due to leak fears. It selected mass media outlets only for early reviews (UK tabloid The Sun‘s ‘Head of Showbiz’ Dan Wootton claimed to run the first, primarily scouring the lyrics for dirt). 25 leaked, anyway.

Alas, musically, 25 is average. Adkins commands a big, expressive, wondrous voice, but her songs have become increasingly polished, generic and middle-of-the-road. 25‘s diva soul will be a critical hit with talent show contestants.

Between albums, Adkins cut that James Bond theme, Skyfall, scoring an Oscar for it. Her personal life transformed. The home-girl from low-income Tottenham, London fell for posh boy Simon Konecki (he did go to Eton) and they had a son, Angelo. Adkins turned 25 in 2013. The fame-shy singer/songwriter/acoustic guitarist contemplated retiring, but then decided she wanted her kid to see her grindin’.

Still, Adkins experienced writer’s block, with successive unproductive studio sessions. She canned an album inspired by motherhood. Mercifully. She was reported to be liaising with Phil Collins and Damon Albarn – both of whom later threw shade at her in interviews. Adkins’ old ally Rick Rubin told her 25‘s initial demos felt rushed and inauthentic. But the project crystallised, Adkins announcing, “My last record was a break-up record and, if I had to label this one, I would call it a make-up record. I’m making up with myself. Making up for lost time.”

The now ubiquitous comeback hit Hello is key — a sorrowful, piano-laden power ballad, and it has Adkins’ charm. Hello cleverly references her broken seclusion with that intro, “Hello, it’s me.” On 25 Adkins writes about feeling nostalgic for her roots and fearing flux. It’s her quarter-life crisis album. Nevertheless, 25 does harbour heartbreak songs — what else is the otherwise reconciliatory Hello? — and it has songs about negotiating relationship drama (cue: Water Under The Bridge) and parenthood.

Adkins has changed her approach to music, too. She is collaborating with more Americans, even Bruno Mars’ posse, The Smeezingtons (the zzzz All I Ask). Hello is produced by California’s Greg Kurstin, who’s in demand with everyone from Dido to Beck since he assisted on Lily Allen’s Alright, Still, but prone to blandness. Any of his efforts here could be Ellie Goulding tracks. Mind, Million Years Ago, with Adkins’ admittedly surprising Spanish guitar, is a bit retro Madonna.

Adkins linked with Major Lazer cohort Ariel Rechtshaid for the sentimental When We Were Young, 25‘s most ‘adult contemporary’ moment. Adkins hired Swedish pop machine Max Martin because she dug Taylor Swift’s I Knew You Were Trouble. His Send My Love (To Your New Lover), which Adkins started at 13, is an acoustic-flavoured number in the mould of Babyface’s ’90s soft R&B, albeit with a rock steady rhythm All Saints might fancy. 25 is — yup! — big on piano ballads. Love In The Dark is quiet, yet has watery strings, Adkins teaming with Sia’s Adelaide chum Samuel Dixon.

Adkins reunites with Paul Epworth, the Grammy-crowned producer of Rolling In The Deep, for two epic and edgier tracks. I Miss You, reveals Adkins’ first erotic lyrics (!) and bears the hallmarks of Epworth’s work for Florence + The Machine, with cavernous drums, echoing vocals and electronic atmospherics. Sweetest Devotion deviates into country.

The coolest song is the darkly swirling River Lea, Adkins experimenting with Danger Mouse — this broaches gospel, with its organ, alt-rock and hip-hop. The title comes from the river which flows through Tottenham. Yet 25 is missing the grit of 2008’s Tottenham-shaped 19. Nothing is as raw, individualistic and Londony as Hometown Glory.

Success is arbitrary. Sam Smith conquered popdom with In The Lonely Hour. But, before, in 2009, Mark Ronson’s Aussie protégé Daniel Merriweather unveiled a stunning neo-soul album, Love & War, which went UK platinum but received little chart love here or stateside.

When Adkins blew up, Merriweather’s label marketed his auspicious duet with her, Water And A Flame, to no avail. There’s actually not much to differentiate 25 from Celine Dion’s Adele-influenced Loved Me Back To Life (which contains a cover of Water…). Even that ‘washed-up’ UK blue-eyed soulster Joss Stone must be wondering why fate has conspired against her. The mania surrounding 25 is such that it can only be overrated. Adele is gifted — but lucky.

’25’ by Adele is out now.

Watch: Adele – When We Were Young (Live at The Church Studios)