Adele - 25: A first listen
"Every album I'm ever going to write is always going to be following 21," Adele told the BBC last month, as she announced her long-awaited comeback.
"My fifth album from now will follow 21. There's nothing I can do about it."
In her forthcoming interview with Graham Norton, to be screened on BBC One this Friday, she admits she nearly gave up music altogether.
"I just got really worried that I was never going to make anything that anyone liked again."
"I started to wonder if 21, being so successful, was enough for everyone," she says. "But I realised it wasn't enough for me. So, sorry, I'm here to make your ears bleed again."
So how does 25 shape up? Well, your ears won't bleed, but your tear ducts are going to get a workout.
It opens with the enormous, bombastic Hello - already a million-seller, but by far the most Adele-by-numbers track on the record.
When We Were Young is the real centrepiece, and a future standard. A soaring anthem about a chance meeting with an ex, it achieves the same intoxicating balance between regret and hope as Someone Like You, without sounding like a facsimile.
"You look like a movie, you sound like a song," she sings to her former flame. "My God, this reminds me of when we were young."
With that lyric, Adele introduces the record's key theme - her uneasy acceptance of adulthood.
"I feel like my life is flashing by - and all I can do is watch and cry," she sings on the mournful guitar ballad Million Years Ago. "I miss when life was a party to be thrown - but that was a million years ago."
Getting older also allows the star to re-examine her past relationships - but the angry, heartbroken woman who wrote 21 is now in a more reflective mood.
On Send My Love (To Your New Lover), she trills: "I'm giving you up. I'm forgiving it all. Send my love to your new lover... Treat her better."
A nimble pop song, produced by Taylor Swift and Britney Spears's hitman Max Martin, its playground chant of a chorus shows a fresh, playful side to the star.
We also get our first glimpse of Adele in seduction mode on I Miss You - a submerged, sparse groove, over which the singer purrs: "Treat me soft but touch me cruel. I want to teach you things you never knew."
Those two tracks, in particular, find the 27-year-old reinvigorated and willing to deviate from formula - and it's no accident they're programmed as the second and third tracks on the record.
Other highlights include the swampy River Lea, produced by Danger Mouse, and the closing track, Sweetest Devotion, in which Adele finally finds an unshakeable love: Her three-year-old son, Angelo ("There is something in your loving that tears down my walls," she sings, adoringly).
Despite emergency surgery in 2012, the star's vocals are undiminished, conveying sorrow, joy, sincerity and warmth, often in the space of a single phrase. And the A-list hitmakers who populate the record wisely build the songs around her presence.
Not every track is perfect - Water Under The Bridge throws half a dozen overlapping hooks at the wall, only to find none of them sticks - but, overall, the record is a worthy successor to 21.
Unlike Michael Jackson, who spent his career chasing the success of Thriller, Adele has avoided the temptation to make a "grand statement" with her follow-up.
Instead, she sounds relaxed, conversational and inspired, on a set of songs that come straight from the heart.
25 is released on Friday, 20 November, on XL Recordings.