“Hello, it’s me,” declares Adele Adkins at the start of 25, her third album. It wasn’t just a greeting to the fans who’d been waiting almost five years for a new record. The British singer-songwriter was also, in many ways, addressing her old self, in the hopes of finding a way forward: As she later sings: “I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet.” Adele has always named her albums for the age at which she wrote them, with each release becoming a sonic scrapbook of emotions and experiences she weathered during those times. But when it came to making 25, she was feeling directionless—at least creatively. By the time she was in her mid-twenties, the Tottenham-born singer-songwriter and once-in-a-generation chronicler of heartbreak was in a long-term relationship and had recently given birth to a son. But, she later revealed, she felt writing about becoming a mother wasn’t interesting enough. That conflict led to a bout of writer’s block—not to mention plenty of soul-searching. It also eventually yielded the music on 25, her third smash album. Released in 2015, the album finds Adele searching for ways to update the classic sound she’d developed on both 19 and 21. She brought in several hitmaking big-name collaborators, including Max Martin, Bruno Mars and Danger Mouse, and she began exploring new genres, many of which found their way onto 25. You can hear the dancehall influence on “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)”, while “Water Under the Bridge”—with its electro drumbeat and sonically tropical verses—has the undeniable feel of 1980s R&B. Still, even with so many styles and songwriters at her disposal, Adele retains her trademark sound on 25, which finds her exploring the passage of time in often devastating detail. On the nostalgic, piano-led “When We Were Young”—written with close collaborator Tobias Jesso Jr.—she sings of being surrounded by people she’s known for years, reflecting on the past and present with a gut-punching enormity of feeling. The organ-accompanied “River Lea”, meanwhile, finds Adele looking back at a river close to her childhood home—while also taking stock at of her current-day flaws. And on “Million Years Ago”, a Spanish-inspired folk song, she laments the end of her pre-fame life, and looks back at the friends and freedoms she’s lost along the way. By the time of 25’s arrival, listeners knew what to expect from Adele—big, heart-stopping, tear-jerking ballads from a soulful pop artist who idolised Etta James as a kid. But the album proved Adele still had plenty of surprises left. Across its 11 tracks, she fully embraces the difficulties of being in your twenties, while also trying to make sense of them. She may no longer be a teenager, but with age comes that other special quality: wisdom. After 25, Adele made listeners wait six long years for her next full-length, the 2021 hit 30. Only then, and no sooner, was she ready to present her magnum opus about motherhood and marriage—and the crushing impact of the latter coming to an end.

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