What does "When We Were Young" by Adele mean?
SONG MEANING: "When We Were Young" by Adele is about meeting up with friends from the past and discussing how things have been. Adele meets one friend in particular and makes amends with him. But the song is really about making amends with the past, represented by that friend.
Adele is slowly releasing singles from her album 25 in preparation for the album's release on Friday. The album is one of the most anticipated in history, and after her single "Hello" sold over a million units in one week, everyone's expecting 25 to also be huge.
On her website, Adele explains, “My last record was a break-up record and if I had to label this one I would call it a make-up record. I’m making up with myself. Making up for lost time.” She further explains that she felt bad for always wishing to get older and to move onto the next thing. Now she wishes she had it all back, so in this album, she’s revisiting herself at age 25 to make peace with the past.
In “When We Were Young,” she makes peace with one friend in particular. Their relationship seems to have ended poorly, and it’s not definitely clear whether the person is male or female or if the relationship was romantic, so there’s plenty of room for open interpretation. (In my explanation, I won’t assume romance but will refer to the person as male.)
I’ve added “When We Were Young” and several other recent hits to my Spotify playlist “Clifford Stumme’s Pop Prerogative.” Feel free to follow the playlist! (If the song’s not yet there, I’m waiting for it to release on Spotify. Thanks for your patience!)
"When We Were Young" Lyrics Meaning
The Setting of the song is a little more complicated than most listeners will expect at first. In an interview with SiriusXM Music, Adele explains that the song is set at a party. Everyone there knew each other when they were younger, and now they’re all over fifty. They’ve been placed in this party where they get to congregate and catch up and meet again after many years.
Obviously, Adele’s is leaning heavily into dramatic nostalgia for the past and all the things we’ve missed as we’ve lived our lives–the things we’ve missed in both our lives and in others. With 25 and “When We Were Young,” she’s trying to go back for a second chance at understanding and living some of that time.
In the First Verse, Adele sings about the person she’s meeting again at this reunion. She’s describing him for her listeners. “Everybody loves the things” he does. They appreciate the “way you talk” and “the way you move.” She sings that he feels “like home”–he’s from far enough back in her past that he reminds her of her childhood. He’s “a dream come true,” and she wants to know if he’s “here alone.”
Because he is, she suggests they talk together for a moment. This isn’t so much because she wants to catch up but more because she wants to think about the past they shared. Until he showed up, her reminisce of the past was incomplete–she was by herself “all night long / Hoping you’re someone I used to know.” She’s not worried about the present and wants to talk about the past.
In the same interview above, Adele said her favorite lines in the song are the Pre-chorus in which she sings, “You look like a movie / You sound like a song / My god, this reminds me / Of when we were young.” This person’s presence means a lot to her because it takes her back to her past.
Instead of letting the conversation die and her leaving, Adele wants to remember this nostalgic moment itself because it reminds her of her nostalgia for the past. In the Chorus, she sings, “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.” People age all the time, but they don’t always realize it–usually because they’re too busy enjoying life.
For this moment, Adele and her friend feel like they’ve gone back in time; meeting up has helped them look and feel younger. She’s afraid that they’ll never feel like this again, so she wants to memorialize it by photographing (or remembering) them now. They will continue to grow old and to feel sad about it, but she will be able to look back to this time nostalgically.
She finishes the chorus by singing, “It made us restless / It was just like a movie / It was just like a song.” In this moment, her feelings about the man and the moment become one. It’s hard to tell whether Adele values re-meeting the man or the memories he’s brought with him more. Perhaps, in an abstract sense, they are the same for Adele. At the least, she experiences them the same way.
In Verse 2, Adele sings, “I was so scared to face my fears / Cause nobody told me that you’d be here.” She wasn’t sure about going to a party that would bring back the past–a past she may not be particularly proud of or happy with–but this feeling of nostalgia and re-meeting this friend (who she “swore . . . moved overseas”) have been worth the trouble. Even though he had left her, she’s glad he’s back.
In Verse 3, Adele sings that “[i]t’s hard to win me back / Everything just takes me back / To when you were there.” She’s finding it difficult to stay in the present because she’s daydreaming about the past they had together. She admits that “a part of me keeps holding / Just in case it hasn’t gone,” and she wonders if he wants the same–“I guess I still care / Do you still care?”–not because she actually wants to go back, but seemingly more because she wants to know if he feels the nostalgia like she does.
Based on my reading, “When We Were Young” is about more than a relationship. Adele is interested in the past and with the thought of the past. The relationship hinted at in “When We Were Young” serves as a vehicle for Adele to sing about her thoughts about the past itself.
A Thought about Nostalgia
I think “When We Were Young” is a beautiful song and it raises valuable questions about our pasts. Should I dwell on my past? Can I learn from the past? Can I make my future better by looking to the past? I think Adele takes it one step further when in this song she seems to celebrate her search for that feeling of nostalgia from “when we were young.”
We have to be sure to not to love the past at the expense of abhorring the future. We have the future; we’ve lost the past. And we have to deal with it (not that Adele isn’t ready to deal with the future). There’s no harm in looking back (and no harm in Adele’s song, of course), but I find it interesting that the past itself seems more important than the relationship in “When We Were Young.” It suggests Adele is considering the qualities of nostalgia and “the past” more than she’s concerned with the nature of the relationship, and anyone listening to her song would be wise to consider this.
Thanks for reading about “When We Were Young” by Adele!
Clifford Stumme has his master’s in English literature and is a blogger and a college instructor/desk-watcher at Liberty University. He likes juggling and reading/writing, and he is married to the wonderful and beautiful Wife April. He thinks pop music is awesome. Seriously awesome.