Adele: "When We Were Young"

Adele Laurie Blue Adkins is young, but that hasn’t stopped her from feeling nostalgic for experiences she hasn’t had. “When We Were Young”, which was co-written with Canadian singer-songwriter Tobias Jesso Jr., takes place from the perspective of someone twice her age. She imagines being at a party in the distant future, surrounded by everyone she’s ever loved, everyone she’s never loved, and all the people of her life who’ve drifted away. So what if those parties don’t happen in real life? “It was just like a movie,” she sings. “It was just like a song.”

In those lines you can hear Adele’s awareness that her drama is completely constructed, but the power of her singing is enough to transcend all self-consciousness. “When We Were Young” is built around somber piano chords loaned by Randy Newman, and designed to show off her staggering, empathic voice. She raises the stakes in every section, switching between husky crackle to a soaring delivery before eventually climaxing with a come-to-Jesus money note. It’s natural to be skeptical of anyone romanticizing unremembered nostalgia—lighten up a little, you want to say—but Adele is a classic diva in the mold of Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston, capable of elevating maudlin sentiment into high art. A million people could sing a line like “I will always love you,” but only one woman made it iconic. Everything about Adele’s presentation suggests she has similar goals in mind.

The sadness swells in her voice as she looks at her friends, who stand with her ravaged by time, knowing the moment won’t last forever. What comes next is the inevitability of separation, and then the finality of death. “I’m so mad I’m getting old, it makes me reckless,” she sings. But inside all this seriousness and all this sadness are reasons to be happy for what’s happened. When she performed the song on “SNL”, her hands flared as she hit that peak and went into overdrive. As her backup singers repeated the song’s title a moment later, she began mouthing along to the refrain, putting on a goofy smile as she pointed back and forth between herself and someone standing offstage. In broadcasting this private interaction for millions, she reminded us that when you strip away the outsized emotion of her songs, you’re left with the connection between two people—an intimacy she never forgets.

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