TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Adele's new album, "25," her first in four years, is one of the year's biggest success stories. It sold over 3 million copies the week it was released, and it's likely that "25" will continue to be one of the best-selling albums through the holiday season. Rock critic Ken Tucker has some ideas about the reasons for the British singer's widespread popularity.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIVER LEA")
ADELE: (Singing) Everybody tells me it's about time that I moved on. And I need to learn to lighten up and learn how to be young. But my heart is a valley, it's so shallow and man-made. I'm scared to death if I let you in that you'll see I'm just a fake. Sometimes I feel...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The success of Adele is so easily explained, it's rather amazing more artists don't try it. She's got a great voice. I know, so do thousands of other singers, but she applies it to songs that makes pop, rhythm and blues and rock in an effort to reach as many people as possible with lyrics that are generalized enough to serve as metaphors for a variety of feelings millions of listeners have.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEND MY LOVE")
ADELE: (Singing) This was all you, none of it me. You put your hands all on my body and told me. You told me you were ready for the big one, for the big jump. I'd be your last love, everlasting you and me. That was what you told me. I'm giving you up. I've forgiven it all. You set me free. Send my love to your new lover. Treat her better. We've got to let go of all of our ghosts. We both know we ain't kids no more. Send my love to your...
TUCKER: In the formulation of Adele's success, image is nearly as important as music, which can initially seem odd for an artist who presents herself as an ordinary person unconcerned with image. Her fans, who span an unusually broad range of ages, love her for her plainspoken directness even as they are entranced by a 21st century form of mystique. Adele, by and large, ignores social media, unenthusiastic about over sharing every moment of her life. She comes across as an adult who's outgrown the need to rebel, to act out or to sexualize her image in an aggressive manner. From a music business standpoint, she reserves her aggression for the way she controls her career. Instead of making headlines from any sort of scandal, she does it through sales figures.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WATER UNDER THE BRIDGE")
ADELE: (Singing) If you're not the one for me, then I'll come back and bring you to your knees. If you're not the one for me, why do I hate the idea of being free? And if I'm not the one for you, you've got to stop holding me the way you do. And if I'm not the one...
TUCKER: Adele sells millions of albums as well as digital downloads - albums, CDs, physical copies of recordings that can be held in your hand. In the age of streaming, this comes across as neither Luddite nor fuddy-duddy but rather as a way of insisting that Adele's audience pay attention not only to hit singles but to the entire album as a unit of artistic expression, which in turn conveys the idea, whether true or not, that Adele labors harder than many artists to avoid filler on her collections.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN WE WERE YOUNG")
ADELE: (Singing) I was so scared to face my fears. Nobody told me that you'd be here. And I swear you moved overseas. That's what you said when you left me. You still look like a movie. You still sound like a song. My God, this reminds me of when we were young. Let me photograph you in this light in case it is the last time that we might be exactly like we were before we realized we were sad of getting old. It made us restless. It was just like a movie. It was just like a song. When we were young. When we were young. When we were young. When we were young. It's hard...
TUCKER: Adele has announced that she'll start a tour in the spring, but in the meantime, her personal appearances have the quality of events. She appeared on "Saturday Night Live," and her album's first single, "Hello," inspired an "SNL" sketch about the healing power of Adele upon families gathered for Thanksgiving. It went viral. She went on "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon" and did what numerous other musicians have done - a version of her hit accompanied by Fallon and The Roots playing schoolroom instruments. And the simplicity of the stunt added to the luster of her image as an easy-going superstar, and it went viral.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JIMMY FALLON")
ADELE: (Singing) Hello, it's me. I was wondering if after all these years, you'd like to meet to go over everything. They say that time's supposed to heal you. I ain't done much healing. Hello...
TUCKER: I haven't said much about the music on this album, "25." That's because nearly every song is attractive without being particularly compelling. There's nothing at stake on this album, other than the challenge to prove a paradox that Adele has spent the four years between the release of "21" and "25" growing, maturing as a singer without changing her sound much at all. I enjoy Adele's phrasing, her restraint, the way she declines to pump up any given lyric with unwarranted emotion. There are no demonstrations of powerhouse technique for technique's sake. In a pop world overflowing with singers who want to blow you away, Adele wants to talk with you, to have a conversation. It's a chat she's having with millions of people yearning to engage with someone who's not shouting at them or begging them to click a like button.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. Adele's new album is called "25." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, how far should we go to protect America from terrorist attacks? On the next FRESH AIR, Chris Whipple and Jules Naudet discuss their Showtime documentary, "Spymasters." They interviewed 12 former CIA directors about making life-and-death decisions and the spymasters' disagreements with each other about torture and drones. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.