After a decade of industry-shifting music, you know what to expect from an Adele song.
One of pop’s greatest clichés is that Adele extracts emotion at the molecular level. Her distinctive voice can unleash a torrent of feeling so powerful that it inspires multiple generations to participate in the anachronism that is record buying. Those feelings are often major-key: her debut “Hometown Glory” is a vivid, consuming tribute to her London neighborhood; her breakthrough “Rolling in the Deep” is an inferno of jilted-lover rage; the instant classic “Someone Like You” is a wistful last look at a soul-changing love; and the history-making “Hello” is an anthemic, somewhat passive aggressive attempt to re-engage with the past. Adele’s iron grip on the music industry comes from her ability to communicate with overwhelming precision, unlike any other artist in mainstream pop.
What’s most startling about “Easy on Me,” Adele’s first single in six years, is its stillness. Inadvertently or not, Adele has trained us to expect grandness from her singles, whether it be from her vocals, the production, or both. “Easy on Me,” co-written and produced by frequent collaborator Greg Kurstin, is decidedly simple, almost quiet: there’s just a lovely piano melody, a whisper-pulsing beat, and that voice, just as emotive but somehow more elastic and expansive than it was before. The song favors “Turning Tables” or “Remedy,” but those songs operate at a higher frequency, carry a heavier weight. “Easy on Me” floats, much like the sheet music that rush from Adele’s car in the accompanying music video. You might steel yourself for a cathartic, soul-rending musical climax, but it never comes. That lack of musical release, the kind that Adele has parlayed into two Diamond-selling albums, is shocking, perhaps even disappointing if you’re used to blasting “Hello” through your AirPods (as I have done for the last six years).
But that stillness allows you to really absorb the lyrics. Adele revealed last week in interviews with the British and American editions of Vogue that her highly-anticipated album 30 will address her recent divorce; specifically, it would explain to her son why the marriage failed. In that context, “Easy on Me” shatters, both your heart and your expectations of what an Adele song is supposed to do. This song reads as a desperate plea of empathy and understanding, an explanation of why Adele ended her marriage. The chorus lays it out plainly: her youth (“I was still a child”) prevented her from grasping the gravity of the commitment she was making. The verses tell of a woman losing herself in the marriage, to the point that she was “drowning in the silence” and she wouldn’t have survived had she stayed. How do you continue on when both partners are “so deeply stuck in [their] ways,” when there’s “no room for things to change”? There’s no antagonist for Adele to aim her pen at, and the uncomfortable reality of a love that was outgrown has her begging for compassion from those who might cast her as the villain of her own story: her ex-husband, the public, and most achingly, her son.
Adele has always been a bastion of emotional honesty, but the intense intimacy she conveys through “Easy on Me” feels unprecedented. A lot riding on this single and 30 as a project. Adele is returning to a music landscape that has drastically changed since she sold 3.38 million copies of 25 in the first week: streaming has rendered iTunes and CDs obsolete, TikTok has cannibalized radio as the premier tastemaker, and #1 singles are made by relentless fan campaigns of mass buying multiple digital covers and remixes. Some will say that Adele should adapt with the times and evolve her sound, while others will insist that she play it safe and give listeners what they want: the feels. “Easy on Me” is not an evolution, nor is it safe, at least not emotionally. It is Adele trusting listeners to set aside their changed, ephemeral relationships with music to take this new journey with her, as she grapples with her new life. It remains to be seen whether we’ll rise to the occasion, but if any one musician is deserving, it is Adele.