When We Were Young (Adele Song)
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When We Were Young Adele Song

"When We Were Young"
Adele - When We Were Young (Official Single Cover).png
Single by Adele
from the album 25
Released22 January 2016
FormatDigital download
StudioDean Street Studios (London)
Ariel Rechtshaid
Adele singles chronology
"When We Were Young"
"Send My Love (To Your New Lover)"

"When We Were Young" is a song by English singer-songwriter Adele. It was released on 22 January 2016 by XL Recordings as the second single from her third studio album, 25 (2015). Adele co-wrote the song with Tobias Jesso Jr., while production of the track was provided by Ariel Rechtshaid. "When We Were Young" is a soul ballad, with lyrics that talk about reminiscing past memories with a loved one. Upon release, the song received critical acclaim from music critics, who praised the song's lyrics and Adele's vocals.[2][3][4][5]

Following the release of 25, "When We Were Young" had already sold 150,000 digital copies in the United States as an album track.[6] It has reached the top 10 in Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Portugal, Scotland, Slovakia, South Africa, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. The song never received an official music video, although a version of the song filmed at The Church Studios was released via Vevo. Adele promoted the song with live performances on the BBC one-hour special Adele at the BBC, Saturday Night Live and Adele Live in New York City.

Background and release

American record producer Ariel Rechtshaid produced the song.

While in the middle of the writing process of 25, Adele struggled with writer's block and to feel confident about the material she had, her manager was also unsure about it and asked Rick Rubin, who produced many songs on her sophomore studio album 21, to give his input on it. Rubin claimed he didn't believe in the songs she had and she admitted that she felt the material was a little rushed.[7] Therefore, in early 2015, Adele flew to Los Angeles to work with different songwriters and producers for two months, and later she expressed interest in working with Canadian musician Tobias Jesso Jr.,[7] after discovering him after hearing his song "Hollywood".[8] She later tweeted a link to Jesso's video for his single, "How Could You Babe".[9] After their managers talked about the collaboration, they met and spent almost three days talking and writing.[10] They ended up writing two songs, "When We Were Young" and "Lay Me Down", with the first being written in a Los Angeles house, in Brentwood, at Philip Glass' piano that Tobias had inherited.[10][11] They started the song from scratch, as Jesso "would play chords while Adele improvised melodies and lyrics."[7] As Jesso recounted, "There was no studio, just a piano and us, and we wrote a lot. I mean a lot lot."[12]

"It's impossible to question why she's where she is once you sit down with her to write a song. She was the first introduction I had to somebody who could sing words on the spot that were actually really great".

--Tobias talking about Adele.[7]

Later, American record producer Ariel Rechtshaid, who previously worked with Jesso, heard rumours that Adele and Jesso wanted to work with him, and he flew over to London, where he produced two songs for her. Rechtshaid claimed that Adele told him that she loved the track, but that she had a lot of ballads on the record and asked him to do whatever he wanted with that information. He later went back to Los Angeles, where he started "chipping away at a rhythm track for it," as he recalled: "It was difficult--with a piano ballad, it's hard to put together a rhythm track that isn't over-the-top dramatic, kind of epic."[13] Rechtshaid added that "the song has an old soul vibe to it, but I wanted to keep it a little bit more modern. The song kind of feels like a lot of different vignettes, reflecting on different times in your life and different people, so all these instruments--bass, drums, piano--felt like other characters."[13] According to the producer, Adele felt emotionally connected to the song and "there was definitely a little bit of tearing up."[13] He also told The Fader that it only took two takes to record the song, and during the song's middle eight, he pushed her beyond her means, since he "felt that it needed to have a little bit more cry to it."[13]

On 16 November 2015, a preview of "When We Were Young" was exhibited by Australian TV program 60 Minutes.[14] A day later, a video of the song's performance at London's Church Studios was uploaded on her YouTube channel.[15] On 26 November 2015, Billboard wrote an article wondering what would be 25 next single, indicating either "When We Were Young" or "Send My Love (To Your New Lover)".[16] On 12 December 2015, Billboard confirmed "When We Were Young" as the album's second single, through a Columbia Records source.[6] It was released early in Italian radio stations on 22 January 2016,[17] and officially released worldwide on 5 February 2016.[18] Along with the digital and streaming release, the single's cover art was revealed, featuring "a throwback picture of her younger self."[19] Carl Williott of Idolator and Lindsay Sullivan of Billboard called it "adorable,"[20][21] while Lewis Corner of Digital Spy wondered, "How much more cute can you get than a primary school Adele, grinning from ear to ear with her two front teeth missing?"[19]

Composition and influences

"When We Were Young" was written by Adele and Tobias Jesso Jr., and produced by Ariel Rechtshaid. Rechtshaid was also the song's engineer, as well as the responsible for organ, glockenspiel, synthesizer, percussion and backing vocals. Jesso also provided backing vocals and played piano. The song also features bass, drums and guitar in its instrumentation. It was recorded at Dean Street Studios, London, and mixed at Capitol Studios, Los Angeles, and at Electric Lady Studios, New York.[23] According to the sheet music published at Musicnotes.com by Universal Music Publishing Group, "When We Were Young" was written in common time in the key of E major with a moderately slow tempo of 72 beats per minute. The song follows a chord progression of Cm-E/G-A-E/G-Fm7-E, and Adele's vocals span two octaves, from E3 to E5.[24]

"When We Were Young" is a reflective soul ballad.[1][25] Hattie Collins of i-D considered it "a 70s styled shimmery disco ballad."[8] It is built around "somber piano chords," which according to Pitchfork's Jeremy Gordon, are "designed to show off her staggering, empathic voice."[2] Gordon also perceived that her vocals switches "between husky crackle to a soaring delivery before eventually climaxing with a come-to-Jesus money note."[2] As defined by Adele, "It's a very '70s singer-songwriter vibe. Which is Tobias' thing, which is why I picked him."[11] Brian Hiatt of Rolling Stone found it to be similar to Elton John as well as Barbra Streisand's "The Way We Were".[7] Bruce Handy of Vanity Fair agreed with Streisand's influence.[26] The Fader's Owen Myers, in agreement with Rechtshaid and Adele, thought that the song reminded him of Gladys Knight.[13] Collins, while also calling it "great big fat love song", opined that it "could be the album's 'Rolling In the Deep'."[8]

Lyrical interpretation and inspiration

Lyrically, "When We Were Young" deals with themes of the "fears of getting older," a recurrent theme on 25,[27] and "finds her reconnecting with [an] old acquaintance years after their adolescence, which prompts her to revisit those memories and to wish she could stop time."[22] As noted by Maeve McDermott of USA Today, during the reunion, "Adele wistfully begins mourning before it's even over."[27] During the song, she "watches as her youth slips away in real time," singing: "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."[27] In the last chorus, she cries about "the inevitability of separation", singing: "I'm so mad I'm getting old, it makes me reckless."[2] Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic analyzed that the entire first verse of the song "is about her working up the courage to approach an old flame who 'everybody loves.'"[28] He added that the song "is another version of the revisitation narrative of 'Someone Like You' but this time, there's no 'never mind, I'll find someone else' portion. There's only her begging for a photo, because she's worried the future won't ever be as good as the past was."[28]

In an interview with SiriusXM, Adele said the song "was based on us being older, and being at a party at this house, and seeing everyone that you've ever fallen out with, everyone that you've ever loved, everyone that you've never loved, and stuff like that, where you can't find the time to be in each other's lives. And you're all thrown together at this party when you're like 50, and it doesn't matter and you have so much fun and you feel like you're 15 again. So that's the kind of vibe of it really."[29] In a New York Times song by song analysis, she added: "At rehearsal, when I was singing 'When We Were Young,' I suddenly had a vision of my best friend putting makeup on me for the first time when I was 17. I had never had that vision when I wrote the song. Every time a new memory comes back in one of my songs for myself, I love it. It's like remembering your life through song."[30] When interviewed by Nick Grimshaw on BBC Radio 1, Adele said that "When We Were Young" was her favourite track off the album 25,[31] and later revealed that her favorite lyric on the track is "You look like a movie / You sound like a song / My god this reminds me of when we were young."[7]

Critical reception

Jeremy Gordon of Pitchfork named it "Best New Track" and praised Adele's vocal performance and how she was "capable of elevating maudlin sentiment into high art".[2]Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic selected the song as one of the album's highlights, noting that she took risks enlisting Ariel Retchshaid to produce the track.[32] Leah Greenblatt of Entertainment Weekly considered it one of the three best tracks of the album, noting that she "means it sincere" with its nostalgic theme.[33] Steven Arroyo of Consequence of Sound selected it as one of the essential tracks on 25.[34] Rob Garratt of The National was positive with her songwriting skills, praising her "fragilely affecting, but ultimately affirming" performance.[35] Writing for Inquirer, Joseph R. Atilano remarked that "a single like this further showcases how lyrically intelligent she is as a composer as well as one of the greatest pure singers alive today".[36] Matt Bagwell of The Huffington Post named it "stunning" and "the album's 'Someone Like You' - in other words, the 'big ballad'."[37]

Lewis Corner of Digital Spy noted that the lyrics "will squeeze your heart and give you a minor midlife crisis--that won't stop you from playing it over and over, though."[3] Corbin Reiff of The A.V. Club praised her "incredible, gritty sultriness [vocals] on the verses."[38] Justin Charity of Complex was also positive with her vocals, calling it "the wildest blossom of Adele's voice."[5] Jon Dolan of Rolling Stone labelled it a "mature [...] torchy ballad,"[39] while T. Cole Rachel of Spin defined it as "the kind of mawkish, overcooked melodrama that one imagines Adele could perform in her sleep."[40] Chris Gerard of PopMatters was extremely positive, naming it "a bittersweet epic [song]. 'When We Were Young' is breathtaking, an example of how great Adele can be when all the stars align. This slow-burning ballad which builds to a powerful climax should have been the first single. It's more complex than 'Hello', has more emotional depth, and Adele's vocals are good enough to bring tears to the eyes. 25 is worth picking up for this song alone."[4]Time named "When We Were Young" the fourth-best song of 2015.[41]

Chart performance

Before its official release, "When We Were Young" had sold 150,000 digital copies in the United States, solely as an album track.[6] It debuted at number 22 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, becoming the chart's highest new entry.[42] The song also debuted at number 34 on the Adult Pop Songs chart and climbed to number 24 the second week, before being released as a single.[6] After its wide-release on streaming services, "When We Were Young" jumped from number 29 to number 20 on the Hot 100.[43] The following week, the song climbed to number 14, which became its peak position.[44] In the same week, the song also climbed to its peak position, number three, on the Adult Pop Songs.[45] In Australia, the song debuted at number 13, on 6 December 2015, and later re-entered at number 39 as a single, on 21 February 2016.[46]

In the United Kingdom, "When We Were Young" debuted at number 29 on the UK Singles Chart as an album track.[47] Later, it re-entered at number 33 when it was released as a single.[48] Following Adele's performance at the BRIT Awards, "When We Were Young" climbed to number 13,[49] and a week later, it advanced to number 9, becoming Adele's seventh top-ten single.[50] In Spain, the song debuted at number 12, on 29 November 2015, and left the charts at number 28; later it re-entered at number 47, on 17 January 2016, and fell off the chart at number 46. Ultimately, "When We Were Young" re-entered for the second time at number 29, on 7 February 2016, and two weeks later, it peaked at number twelve.[51] In Switzerland, the song managed to peak at number five, becoming her sixth consecutive top-five hit.[52]

Live performances and cover versions

Adele performing the song at the Genting Arena, March 2016

The first live performance of the track was filmed at London's The Church Studios and uploaded on her VEVO account on 17 November 2015.[25] Adele performed the song live on Adele at the BBC, which was recorded at The London Studios on 2 November 2015 and broadcast on BBC One on 20 November 2015.[53] She performed the song on Saturday Night Live on 21 November 2015.[54] Adele also performed the song on Adele Live in New York City, which was recorded at a one-night-only show at Radio City Music Hall on 17 November 2015 and broadcast on NBC on 14 December 2015.[55] Adele performed "When We Were Young" as the closing song on the 2016 Brit Awards in London.[56] Adele included the song on her set of the Glastonbury Festival 2016 for over 135,000 people.[57] "When We Were Young" was also added to the set list of her Adele Live 2016 Tour.[58]

American singer Demi Lovato covered "When We Were Young" at the Future Now Tour on 2 September 2016. Daniel Kreps from Rolling Stone wrote that "Lovato delivered a faithful, slightly sped-up take on the 25 single, which Lovato used as another vessel to showcase her powerful vocals."[59] Actor Luke Evans sang a little part of "When We Were Young" on The Jonathan Ross Show by telling that it was his new favorite song.[60]Fernando Daniel covered the song on The Voice Portugal for his blind audition. Country singer Billy Gilman covered "When We Were Young" during his blind audition for the eleventh season of The Voice.[61] On the album Punk Goes Pop Vol. 7, Andy Black and Juliet Simms cover Adele's "When We Were Young".  The duo also released a music video.[62]

Track listing

Digital download[63]

  1. "When We Were Young" - 4:50

Digital remixes EP[64]

  1. "When We Were Young" (Strobe Remix) - 5:06
  2. "When We Were Young" (KlubKidz Remix) - 5:14

Credits and personnel


  • Recorded at Dean Street Studios, London
  • Mixed at Capitol Studios, Los Angeles, and at Electric Lady Studios, New York


Credits adapted from 25 liner notes.[23]



Region Certification Certified units/sales
Australia (ARIA)[119] Platinum 70,000^
Belgium (BEA)[120] Gold 15,000*
Canada (Music Canada)[121] 3× Platinum 240,000double-dagger
Denmark (IFPI Denmark)[122] Platinum 60,000^
Italy (FIMI)[123] Platinum 50,000double-dagger
New Zealand (RMNZ)[124] Platinum 15,000*
Sweden (GLF)[125] Platinum 40,000^
United Kingdom (BPI)[126] Platinum 600,000double-dagger
United States (RIAA)[127] Platinum 1,000,000double-dagger

*sales figures based on certification alone
^shipments figures based on certification alone
double-daggersales+streaming figures based on certification alone

Radio and release history

Region Date Format Label Ref.
Italy 22 January 2016 Mainstream radio XL [17]
Australia 29 January 2016 Digital download [128]
New Zealand [18]

See also


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