Hello, can you hear that? It’s the sound of a million breaths unbated and “Buy” buttons clicked; the whoosh of critics rushing to assess and giddy record executives cashing early Christmas-bonus checks. Welcome to the Adele event horizon.

There’s only one artist whose return, after a nearly five-year absence, is powerful enough to tilt pop culture on its axis like this—which can make it hard to bring the expectations for her new third album, 25, back down to human scale. The singer herself has already said in numerous interviews that she would be crazy to try to match the astonishing success of 2011’s 21, the sophomore knockout that went on to sell more than 30 million copies and saturate airwaves so thoroughly that the final notes of “Someone Like You” are probably still ricocheting off the surface of some distant planet.

Instead, she’s made a record that feels both new and familiar—a beautiful if safe collection of panoramic ballads and prettily executed detours. The album opener and lead single, “Hello,” is one of the most 21-esque tracks here: a lush, skyscraping anthem with goosebumps in every note. (Unsurprisingly, it’s also a smash; no other song this year sold faster.) The one that follows, an airy little postcard to an ex called “Send My Love (To Your New Lover),” makes a sharp left turn, though the swerve is not nearly as outrageous as it could be considering that Swedish pop titan Max Martin is at the controls. Over a swooping refrain—“We’ve gotta let go of all our ghosts/We both know we ain’t kids no more”—and a hiccupy acoustic backbeat, she sounds glad to be in the business of forgiving, if not exactly forgetting.

The palatial piano ballads “Love in the Dark” and “All I Ask” feel much more expected: classic vehicles soaked in stately production and minor-key melancholy. But this isn’t the wronged woman of 21, pouring out the pain of her pulverized heart; it’s Adele at 27, a happily partnered young mom who can still access the most tender emotions—and knows too how much that catharsis means to her listeners—but is coming now from a calmer, more peaceful place. Her toddler son’s happy gurgles usher in the intro to “Sweetest Devotion,” and the voluptuous, slow-rolling “I Miss You” is as explicitly seductive as anything she’s ever done. (“Bring the floor up to my knees/Let me fall into your gravity/And kiss me back to life to see/Your body standing over me.”)

If anything, her sadness has transferred from lost love to lost time: The flamenco-guitar-kissed “Million Years Ago,” the Danger Mouse-helmed holy roller “River Lea,” and “When We Were Young,” penned with Canadian indie-rock wunderkind Tobias Jesso Jr., are all heavily steeped in nostalgia for the past. It’s easy to give her a hard time for that; is she even old enough to pine for anything further back than the hazy days of the early ‘00s? But she clearly means it sincerely, and the songs also happen to be three of the album’s best.

The hundreds of words already written here notwithstanding, there’s something about 25 that resists analyzing. Its lyrics and stylistic flourishes strive much more for simplicity than singularity, so in some ways it can be strange to watch such frenzied energy surround an artist who offers herself so transparently. Adele has always been a little bit of an anomaly, though: She’s an analog girl in a digital world, a pop colossus whose songs don’t conform to anything else on pop radio, an instantly recognizable star who prefers, most of the time, not to be seen. When she does appear in public, she’s a pro—funny and charming and toweringly glamorous. But unlike her peers (if you can call them that) she rejects almost all the perks and trappings of fame; her music is, for the most part, the only piece of her for sale, and even the songs themselves feel secondary to how she sings them. Her voice is a national monument, a ninth wonder; whatever she chooses to wrap it around is transformed and taken over. If that’s not the definition of a once-in-a-generation talent, what is?

  • Music