25 Going on 40

How Adele makes middle-aged music cool for young people.

Adele in 2012.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo illustration by Danny Moloshok/Reuters.

The mystery of Adele Laurie Blue Adkins is not so much why she’s had both the biggest-selling album of the decade (21) and, as of this week, likely the fastest-selling album of all time (2 million in 25’s first three days). It’s that her music is unabashedly square and hokey, but only the most dug-in music snobs and cynics would deny she is pretty cool.

Her guileless off-stage persona certainly helps—foul-mouthed and self-deprecating, with a thick North London accent, she resembles a Brit version of Jennifer Lawrence except unapologetically plus-sized. (I defy anyone to remain hostile after the BBC clip in which she plays the world’s nicest prank on a roomful of singers who aspire to imitate her.) Adele’s selectivity about public appearances also lends her a dram of mystique; she’s not begging you every 15 minutes to follow her on Instagram. And of course her vocal radiance is undeniable, even if its exact magnitude is up for debate.

That’s enough to put a pusher of sentimental power ballads on the charts, but to make her the biggest thing in music, for many twentysomethings as much as their parents—really? It makes me concerned the younger generation may be suffering alarmingly low levels of acerbity.

With her new album, 25, largely backing off from the bluer notes of, say, “Rolling in the Deep,” Adele has begun to attract comparisons to Barbra Streisand and Céline Dion (to the displeasure of some). Yet that old-lady musk is not damping her mojo. In fact, she is taking the act further: The chanteuse-styled “A Million Years Age” is not the only track on 25 where Adele sounds a bit like the graveyard-bound protagonist of the 1974 Jacques Brel adaptation and U.S. hit “Seasons in the Sun.” In following up the album that caused the devastating global facial-tissue shortage of 2011–13, the singer-songwriter often voices lines that sound more like postcards from a retirement home than the sentiments of a chipper 27-year-old London millionaire.

Consider these symptoms of her lyrical progeria: On the album opener and hit single “Hello,” Adele leaves a voice mail (who does that anymore?) for a years-past lover and moans, “It’s no secret that the both of us are running out of time.” On “Send My Love (to Your New Lover),” she chides, “We gotta let go of all our ghosts/ We both know we ain’t kids no more.” On “When We Were Young,” she gets wistful running into an ex at a party and curses, “I’m so mad I’m getting old.” And on “A Million Years Ago” itself, she keens that she feels “like my life is flashing by/ And all I can do is watch and cry.”

Granted, Adele had an old-soul vibe even in her teens, and no doubt superstardom combined with new motherhood can inflate a quarter-life crisis into feeling suddenly middle-aged. For all her directness, though, Adele’s songs are not actually ripped out of her diary. This level of pop is inevitably a product of craft and strategy. So 25 took so long to finish not only because—as she wrote in her typically disarming press statement—“life happened,” but because she was toiling and straining over it with various co-writers, sometimes coming up blank and in other sessions scrapping the songs that she had completed.

The new record needed to sound fresh and more contemporary—she couldn’t just repeat herself—but it also had to deliver Adele’s trademark exquisite, timeless, sepia-toned vulnerability, the heartbreak that leads Target to stock packages of Kleenex next to her CDs, only half-jokingly. That pressure reminds me of that ultimate writers’-block narrative, the Coen brothers’ film Barton Fink, in which a Depression-era Hollywood producer assures the anxious playwright he’s hired: “The important thing is we all want it to have that ‘Barton Fink’ feeling. We all have that feeling, but since you’re Barton Fink, I’m assuming you have it in spades.”

The question was: Did Adele have that “Adele” feeling? Her previous albums had been about youthful struggles, affairs, and breakups, and adapted the high emotional technology of classic R&B, soul, and country to express those upheavals. Now she was settled, matched, nannied, rich, and famous—which are not the building blocks of “relatability” (as Hollywood producers say today), much less of mass “ugly-cry” selfies

Discovering the nostalgia theme solved that dilemma, on multiple levels. If the production on 25 is generally less “retro” than on 21, with contributions from the likes of Max Martin and Danger Mouse, the lyrical focus preserves the respect for the past that older listeners, especially, appreciated. Thus her music can include more synthesizers without being accused of selling out to soulless circuitry and futurism.

The motif also helps Adele bridge over anxieties about her “comeback” four years after 21, most obviously with the album’s initial words, “Hello, it’s me/ I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet.” If she feared having fallen out of fashion in her absence, she can make herself an object of nostalgia, saying, Remember the good old days of “Someone Like You”? Moreover, nostalgia provides Adele a vehicle to address the way fame has changed her life, but indirectly: Instead of the standard privileged whining about the press, privacy, and the deprivations of the road, she sings about losing touch with old friends, childhood haunts, and youthful freedom, which everyone can understand.

Even teenagers and college students are capable of looking back gauzily on what they’ve recently grown out of or projecting themselves into the future and retroactively romanticizing where they are right now. The young are often the greatest sentimentalists, particularly in times of instability. (Do economic inequality, climate change, and maybe Snapchat help explain their eagerness for Adele, like YA novelist John Green, to make them weep over old, eternal clichés?)

The theme also means Adele’s concerns here are more internal. As she’s said in interviews, it’s about what she makes herself feel rather than what some man makes her feel—a feminist shift similar to Taylor Swift’s recent efforts to stress female friendships over love affairs. But if listeners still seek Adele the heartbreak queen, nostalgia makes available many useful metaphors. Her subject matter may generally be less wrenching now, but nostalgia has been the ruling emotion of the sentimental ballad for centuries (think of old Irish parlor songs) precisely because it is so pliable.

The risk is that nostalgia may make it all too easy to play arpeggios on listeners’ heartstrings, the stuff of old long-distance telephone commercials that played on viewers’ homesickness, anxieties, and guilt.

There are times on 25 where Adele, whose lyrics are generally very plain-spoken, gets mired in those shallows, as on the “You look like a movie/ You sound like a song” chorus of “When We Were Young,” written with the young-fogey piano man Tobias Jesso Jr. The unusual (for Adele) sexual heat of “I Miss You” gets diffused by a displaced-time device. And the two songs written for her son, Angelo, falter by repeating the same before-and-after framework—“Remedy” is the better, while the sugar rush of “Sweetest Devotion” melts away in my mind to an echo of Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion.”

The other function nostalgia performs on 25, I think, is to reorient the listener’s relationship to the music. On 21, Adele was in a long, watery wallow, and listeners were invited to plunge in with her, to ride out the crashes of her vocal waves. But on 25 she holds us at arm’s length, the longer perspective creating a kind of imaginary vista through which her voice can move at will. It’s a social space in which listeners from different generations can gather around the hearth of her voice, but also observe, consider, and admire it, rather than being constantly immersed.

On her first album, Adele was a less edgy version of Amy Winehouse, the young jazzy bohemian singer; on her second, an R&B belter aiming to represent a more “organic” presence on the charts for those who hear beat-driven pop as too plastic. Today’s Adele seems less drawn to such poses. She sings with less of a throaty burr here, more of a “pure” tone—which tends to read as a “whiter” one—whether by choice or due to the vocal surgery she had to remove a polyp in 2011. The emphasis on her own timeline here likewise makes us concentrate on her as the working-class Tottenham girl with the improbably posh voice.

Both that sound and that story are reminiscent of Dion and Streisand. Each rose from underclass positions (in rural Francophone Quebec and postwar Jewish New York, respectively) to offer up lush larynxes almost as luxury goods: signals of aspiration and ascent, hitting high notes to reach the high life. The cooler, more sophisticated move in pop is usually to dirty up, to play the outsider. Adele, coming from cosmopolitan London, has managed to do a bit of both. This is part of why—unlike Dion, for example—she’s avoided being condemned as phony or “naff” (as the English say) while still following a dustier showbiz script.

She has caught some shade, however, from listeners who’ve heard a few too many Aretha Franklin comparisons, and I think rightly so. Despite the power of her instrument, she is nowhere near a singer on that order of versatility and nuance. Given the choice between slaying you with a roar, a hush, or a bend, Adele generally goes for the roar. But her previous jazz and blues affectations also misled some ears, particularly American ones, to expect the wrong things.

Her voice is athletic, but it is not pyrotechnic in the way that soul singers coming out of the black gospel tradition can be, with the kind of gymnastic ornamentation that Mariah Carey mastered (and others often overemulated). Adele’s style begins instead from English folk clubs, high school musicals, and Top of the Pops (from Dusty Springfield to the Spice Girls), then scales up by way of black singers, such as Etta James and Roberta Flack, who knew their way around a ballroom. She doesn’t phrase the way an American jazz singer might—she lands on the beat, generally, rather than behind it. But her stresses and pauses serve her as a storyteller. That simplicity has its virtues, helping produce the immediate emotional connection at the core of that “Adele” feeling.

Her material is mostly a means to that end. Adele is choosy: There are only 11 songs on 25 (excluding a couple of bonus tracks), so the album is concise and cohesive (implicit subtext: like albums used to be!), but not very complicated. The fancier production is fun in places, as on the Tune-Yardslike faux-African vocal swoops on the Max Martin number, “Send My Love (to Your New Lover),” while Danger Mouse’s electronic enhancements add little to “The River Lea” (although I like the song). Subtler choices produce more on the Bruno Mars collaboration, “All I Ask,” a piano ballad that musically could practically be on a Céline Dion album. It zeroes in on a specific moment between two lovers about to spend their last night together, making the startlingly adult request, “Give me a memory I can use.” It’s nostalgia plotted in advance, as self-care. And in its final minute, the music suddenly modulates up a key as if on an out-of-control skid into that frightening future.

Overall, Adele writes no better than she needs to. Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine is not quite Adele’s equal as a singer, for instance, but she delivers more powerful and varied songs, while an album like 25 risks sounding like a Broadway musical cast album with everyone but the leading lady cut out. (What I’d give for a comic number halfway through!) When I’m tempted to dismiss Adele, the material is the cause, much more than the relative obviousness of her vocals. Whenever I hear “Hello,” I think of the early Tom Waits song “Martha,” which is also about an uncomfortable phone call between two long-parted lovers. Adele’s song is affecting, but Waits’ is crushing.

Still, I’m happy we have Adele around to motivate us to think about singing for singing’s sake. Part of the reason she hasn’t faced too much backlash is that we’re in a very different cultural cycle than in Dion’s 1990s, when self-consciously cool people put populist music down on principle. (As I’ve written about at length.) But the current eclectically-minded pro-pop era often seems to linger over rhythm, production, fashion, catchphrases, and other gestures—almost anything but the physical performance of music. Beyoncé routinely does as much great singing as Adele does, but we neglect it because there’s so much else going on. Most Nashville country stars sing fantastically, but many people can’t hear that through their genre prejudices. It may be nostalgic, but it also seems restorative once in a while to put on a recording for no reason other than to hear a human being sing.