4 stars (out of 4)
She had us at “Hello.” And there are 10 more immortal anthems where that came from on Adele’s much-anticipated third triumph of an album, which starts taking over the universe on Friday, Nov. 20.
Although the vocal Goliath has settled down with boyfriend Simon Konecki and her 3-year-old son, Angelo, and the subject matter has branched out beyond the crippling breakup at the core of her gargantuan sophomore set, 21, she’s still wrestling with that pesky ex who inspired such pop grenades as “Rolling in the Deep” and “Someone Like You.”
This is not another big sob story though. The 27-year-old has evolved beyond the victimized young lass, wallowing in the anguish of crippled love, whom we first fell for. The earth-shaking “Hello” is one of many songs spun from the maturing view of a woman processing what might have been from a comfortable distance while trying to come to grips with how quickly time flies by.
On “Love in the Dark,” one of several softer piano ballads that stunningly highlight That Voice, Adele pulls the plug on their relationship for good to avoid further pain, insisting “I’m being cruel to be kind.” And she refuses once and for all “to give in to his empty promises on the rhythmic “Send My Love (To Your New Lover),” declaring “We ain’t kids no more” over a jaunty, Taylor Swiftian groove (mega producer Max Martin, who sculpted many of the sick beats on Swift’s 1989, lends his production alchemy to this one). Like 21, this set walks the sonic line between the modern and the timeless, with the creeping, Weeknd-style R&B groove of “I Miss You” cozying up next to minimalistic arrangements that could have sprung from any simpler bygone era.
The gripping gospel-blues stomper “River Lea,” titled after the stream that flowed near Adele’s childhood home in London, finds her boldly taking accountability for the flawed relationship with her estranged father. “I need to learn to lighten up,” she confesses. This reflective theme plays out even more affectingly in the hushed acoustic guitar burner “Million Years Ago,” where Adele moons over her lost youth, realizing, “I feel like my life is flashing by, and all I can do is watch and cry.”
Of course, this sense of nostalgia intertwines with the more comforting confines of new love and family in startling ways. The plaintive piano ballad “Remedy,” in which she pledges “your love is my truth,” will soon be the first-dance song at every wedding. And she addresses motherhood with the joyous “Sweetest Devotion,” which marks Angelo’s recording debut. It could just as easily be a tribute to Konecki with such effusive declarations as, “There’s something in your loving that tears down my walls.”
Of everything here, though, the “Someone Like You” is the gut-wrenching, Bruno Mars-produced ballad “All I Ask.” It will have women sobbing and singing along in their cars until the arrival of 29.
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