"This is never ending, we've been here before," Adele sings on "Love in the Dark," the most traditional-sounding track on her new, tradition-bound album, 25 (Columbia).

After selling 30 million albums worldwide, as Adele did with 21, there isn't a great deal of incentive to shake things up. So Adele does what Adele does best on what is being billed by some hype-stirrers as the year's (the century's?) most anticipated album.

Adele Adkins, the 27-year-old British singer with the awe-inspiring voice and the charming, girl-next-door personality, opens her first album in four years with "Hello," a tear-stained ballad that could've been lifted off 21.

She's here to equalize, connect and uplift, because who doesn't need a good cry once in a while?

This is not to diminish Adele's skills, her poise and precision as a multi-octave vocalist, her sincerity in addressing her personal struggles. But there's a sense of "we've been here before" that makes it seem as though Adele, the artist, has taken a back seat to Adele, the meal ticket who would single-handedly save the music industry. At a time of declining record sales, no one sells quite like Adele. And so even though she's added a few songwriters and producers to her stable of collaborators, and even though she's moved on in her private life from the toxic relationship at the heart of 21 that spawned hits such as "Rolling in the Deep" and "Someone Like You," her music hasn't.


Her new songs look back on the wreckage of that relationship and seek some sort of closure, if not healing. Adele, who shares a co-writing credit on each of the 11 songs, isn't much for flowery syntax or literary allusions. Her directness is a huge part of her appeal, her emotional and lyrical transparency inviting everyone into her world. She sprinkles just enough specifics amid the cliches to identify the songs as her story, rather than a cut-and-paste factory job assembled by a committee of songwriters.

But the music itself sticks to a formula centered on piano ballads and churchy hymns. "Hello" is stately and slow-moving — producer Greg Kurstin is new to the team, but he brings nothing new to the sound. The piano-playing singer-songwriter Tobias Jesso offers more of the same on "When We Were Young." "Water Under the Bridge" manages a bit of a gallop but falls back on echoes that are vaguely gospel, and vaguely mush, despite the annoying cannon-shot reverb on the snare drum. Danger Mouse dials up more gospel organ but little else on the inert "River Lea." The most lavishly orchestrated track, "Love in the Dark," swims in more bombast than Adele needs. Her measured vocals avoid histrionics even as the music tries to bust the seams of her natural restraint, but barely. She's better served by Bruno Mars' "Million Years Ago," which tries to put her on Broadway.

With even slightly more adventurous arrangements, Adele hints at what this album might have been. Swedish pop maestro Max Martin worked with Taylor Swift on 1989, the only album in recent years with sales figures within shouting distance of Adele's, and he collaborates with the singer on the relatively brisk "Send My Love (to Your New Lover)," centered on Adele's percussive guitar and a playful chorus.

"I Miss You" evokes the ghostly atmospherics of Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight," with producer Paul Epworth's drums upfront, suiting a song populated with ghosts. With its undulating, finger-picked acoustic guitar and dusky vocal, the Kurstin-produced "Million Years Ago" suggests Brazilian bossa nova, French art song or the autumnal balladry of '50s Frank Sinatra.

What-might-have-beens saturate Adele's lyrics through the first 10 songs. It's only on the final song, "Sweetest Devotion," that she sounds uncharacteristically optimistic and ready to move on as she celebrates a new relationship. Meanwhile, she's left her huge fan base with a largely critic-proof album designed to keep her career where 21 left it.

—Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune